A Christian Reflection on How Grief Changes Children
My Brother, Derwin
"Mommy, where's Derwin?"
"He's up in heaven, Honey."
"Heavenly Father wanted him to be with him now."
"That's not fair! I want him here!"
"I'm sorry. You will see him again."
"I want to see him now! Doesn't Heavenly Father love me anymore?"
When my brother, Derwin, died at the age of 16 in a tragic drowning accident, our family changed. I was only 15 at the time, and I had always lived in his shadow. He was strong, athletic, smart, and dependable. I always knew I could count on him—and then one day he was gone.
My younger siblings had a difficult time with the adjustment. Death was a new concept for them. When we went to the funeral home, I heard them asking my parents, "Why doesn't he wake up?" "Why can't he move?" "Why do we have to leave him here?" "I want him to come home!"
They couldn't understand that their beloved older brother was gone for good. It devastated them. I didn't understand my own feelings at the time, either. I watched everyone around me crying, but I couldn't. For some reason, I kept telling myself, "It's not my fault."
Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.— Helen Keller
Children are born with a keen sense of fairness and family. They look at objects or animals and automatically assign them the familiar roles of mother, father, and baby. Children love their parents, no matter who they are or what they have done. They naturally want to be with them and will do everything they can to return to them, no matter the cost.
When this natural course of events is interrupted through the loss of a parent or sibling, children grieve, and their development of trust is altered. The child's world view becomes one of pain and sorrow. The sparkle leaves their eyes, the shoulders slump, and feelings of self-worth are replaced by fear and doubt.
The very foundations of their world are rocked and they are left like a ship without an anchor. Nothing is sure anymore. There is deep uncertainty and they are much more cautious about trusting others. When children grieve, we cannot brush them aside with trite phrases or dismiss their feelings as only temporary. They want and need answers to their deep questions, and it is up to us as the adults in their world to provide them.
- I Am a Child of God
This children's song teaches the eternal truths that answer the age-old questions of who we are, where we came from, and where we go when we die (from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website).
The questions of life and death have been around since the beginning of time. Any person who has lived on this earth faces them when facing their own mortality. They are:
- Who am I?
- Where did I come from?
- Where do I go after I die?
If we have not found the answers to these questions ourselves, how can we help the children in our world face them? Grief requires an adjustment in our world view, no matter what our age when we experience the loss. The world view of children centers primarily on the home and family; therefore, when loss takes place within that world view, the entire world crumbles and trauma is the result.
Children have been known to lose language skills, regress to infantile behavior, and develop emotional disorders as a result of losing a parent or sibling. It takes years and lots of love to rebuild the relationships of trust that are lost and to reconstruct a more positive world view.
Even then, as adults, those who have experienced childhood grief have to replace the lost connection with one that can never be severed, that of being a child of God. God is our Heavenly Father and we are all his children. This spiritual heritage is the only substitute that will suffice for lost relationships in our earthly existence.
Death separates “the spirit and the body [which] are the soul of man.” (D&C 88:15.) That separation evokes pangs of sorrow and shock among those left behind. The hurt is real. Only its intensity varies. Some doors are heavier than others. The sense of tragedy may be related to age. Generally the younger the victim, the greater the grief.— Russell M. Nelson
My Brother, My Friend
Written by Denise W. Anderson in memorial of her brother, Derwin.
There was a time when life was good. Running with the wind, we believed within. Laughter and children are forever young, carefree and loving, enjoying the fun. A time when my brother was always my best friend, together we will be until the end. Cheering and challenging, tailing and traveling, I'm with my brother, I'm with my friend.
Then death came unexpectedly to a strong willed youth like a saber-tooth! I cried in anguish, "God why can't you see? He was the best of them, how could this be?" My heart wrenched within me, my anger unending! He was my brother, my soul is now rending! Crying and cradling, sighing and saying, "You took my brother, you took my friend!"
Brothers are special, brothers are strong, and brothers are like saviors to those who walk their shadows.....
The days pass by so quickly now, time has ways to heal what we only feel. I think of Jesus who died on the cross, Mary and Joseph each mourned the great loss. Our Father in Heaven cried out in his suffering, watching his son as a lamb on an offering! Even the earth moaned seeing him all alone, Jesus my brother, Jesus my friend.
I know my Savior rose again. He is up on high, the Father is close by. Rejoice my heart and sing praises to him! Death has been conquered, we will live again! I will see my brother and we'll be together, never to part again, worlds on forever. Because we live again, I'll see him once again. I'll see my brother, I'll see my friend!
Years after my brother's death, when my husband's grandmother passed away, I became physically ill. I realized that I wasn't just grieving for her, I was grieving for my brother as well. I wrote a poem that expressed my feelings, then I looked through my things and found some pictures of him. I told my mother what I was doing, and she sent me a copy of the life history he had completed prior to his death. I added it to the booklet, made copies for my family members, and sent it to them.
The people most affected by my gift were my younger siblings. They did not remember Derwin, being so young when he died. The pictures and words coming from his own pen opened up a chance for them to reconnect with someone that they had loved and lost. The healing not only helped me go forward, but helped them as well.
When the children in our world are affected by grief, the most important thing that we can do is love them. As we encircle them in the arms or our love and listen to them, we will grow in our understanding of what it is that they need.
Their questions may seem deep and complex, but our answers need to be simple. As we avoid long explanations and address the concern that they have in that moment, we will help them to work through their grief and make needed adjustments in their world view.
A very simple demonstration of death is to show the child a lifeless glove. It is like our body. When the spirit is inside the body, there is life, just like when our hand is inside the glove. At death, the spirit leaves the body. The body remains here on the earth, while the spirit goes back to God.
Telling children that the deceased is "in a better place" or that "God wanted them to be with him" gives the child a desire to die so that he or she can be with the deceased. It is much better to help the child understand that death is a part of life. We enter this world at birth, and death is the way that we leave it. Some people die when they are old. Others when they are young. We need not be afraid of death, but we do not wish for it, either.
Children need to know that it is okay to be sad and cry when they cannot see their loved one. Sharing memories with them helps us to feel happiness and joy at this difficult time. We may even want to help the child create a project that preserves their memories. As we do so, we help them build trust with us, and enable them to have a more positive world view for their future.
Praying with them gives them the assurance that God is still there for them, that they are loved, and that they can turn to their Heavenly Father during their grief. Talking with them about the Savior's death and resurrection helps them to personalize the fact that they will see their loved one again. The hope that is generated, even though the child may not fully understand, gives a place of peace for them when they need comfort in the future.
Have you experienced a death in your family recently?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2017 Denise W Anderson