(The Vancouver Sun, February 18, 2002)
Q: My 8-year-old son recently lost a friend to leukemia. He seems to be dealing with it as well as can be expected, but every so often, he acts out and gets very emotional and I cant help but think it is all related. I have also noticed some changes in his personality since his friends passing. How can I help him through the process of grieving?
Saleema and Teresa: You dont have to be a grieving expert to know that losing a loved one isnt easy for anyone. Even for an adult, it is difficult to know how to grieve and how to make sense out of such a huge loss. And as resilient as children are, they need to go through the same process. Your sons loss is unique in that when a friend dies, we dont get the social support we receive when a family member dies. For example, he probably hasnt taken time off school or been given condolence cards. As well, losing his friend at such a young age (were assuming the friend was a child as well) seems unfair and even harder to come to terms with. In a perfect world, children wouldnt have to worry about friends dying, but we believe that our culture needs more traditions and support for grieving friends. Recognizing that this process is different for everyone, here are some ideas we hope will help your son cope.
1. Be prepared to answer questions he may not be asking. As you can imagine, this experience has probably raised a lot of questions for your son that he may be too scared or uncomfortable to ask. In addition to wondering how it is fair that this person was taken from the world, he may have fears, or even paranoia, that he is going to die or that his loved ones are going to leave him. Talk about death as an inevitable part of life (the book Lifetime, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen may be helpful), and reassure him that you are not going anywhere. He may also feel some anger, which could be causing him to act out. Recognize this anger as a normal and natural reaction to loss, and encourage him to channel these emotions toward remembering his friend with a sense of calm and acceptance.
2. Remember his friend. Invite your son to share stories about his friend and to reflect on good times they shared. He may wish to compile a memory book or journal (other friends could contribute to this) as a way to keep his friends spirit alive. This may help your son to remember his friend not as a dying person, but as a person full of life.
3. Declare a day to him. Have your son pick a special day of the year devoted to the memory of his friend. On this day every year, he could visit his grave, or donate some of his time or money to kids charities such as Childrens Hospital or Ronald McDonald House.
4. Suggest the idea of an honorary son. Depending on the nature of your sons relationship with the family of his friend, maybe he could spend some time with them on a regular basis as a source of support that is mutually beneficial.
5. Dont be afraid to reach out. It cant hurt to have your son spend some time with a grief counselor. The Living With Loss Counseling Society of BC offers both individual and group support for parents and children, and can be reached at 604-873-5013. Also, visit your library or bookstore. Here are some titles recommended by Kidsbooks:
– Healing Your Grieving Heart, by Alan Dean Wolfelt.
– Grieving Child: A Parents Guide, by Helen Fitzgerald.
For your son:
– The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, by Leo Buscaglia.
– Rudis Pond, by Eve Bunting.