Confronting the loss of the family system can be very difficult for children coping with divorce. Caring adults in these children’s lives may feel overwhelmed and helpless when faced with divorce and may feel unskilled in assisting children navigate this confusing time. These adults may want to help, but have no idea what to do.
Being Supportive A grieving child needs supportive adult help to go through and complete the mourning process. Adults must take the initiative in offering help. The most valuable thing they can offer is their presence. It is far more important than their knowledge or advice. The companionship of family and friends is the greatest source of support and solace. Adults can help a grieving child by sitting near, holding a hand, giving a hug, listening, and allowing them to share their feelings. In other words, what bereaved children need most is the acknowledgment of their pain and sorrow, and that this pain will not be erased but may lessen over time. Often adults imagine there is a “right” way to act, and struggle to find exactly the right words, when a simple “I’m sorry” is enough. Though some words may offer solace, there are few “right” words for the occasion of the grief of divorce. Being a caring presence and a good listener is more important than any words that might be said.
Different Needs When helping children who are grieving, it is important to note that children have different needs during the different phases of this grief. A good rule of thumb (no matter the age of the child), is to ask directly about the child’s needs. For example, if a child needs to talk, then by all means talk. If he or she wants quiet, the adult should be quiet too, and not rush to fill the silence. The adult should focus on the child’s needs not burdening the child with adult grief. Some kinds of sharing may be disturbing or frightening to children, who are just trying to come to grips with loss. Thus, adults should use judgment in sharing feelings or experiences. The bereaved child is vulnerable and needs understanding and rarely has much to give in return.
Don’t Rush It is extremely painful to be a witness to intense mourning of a child. It is tempting, when uncomfortable, to shut them off, to encourage them to stop crying, to deny their pain, or to try to rush them through the painful mourning process. However, fully grieving is necessary and healthy. Denying children the opportunity to grieve fully is a great interference as well as a rejection. Adults must remember that children are not only grieving the divorce but realizing that the future they expected will never materialize. Family changes exacerbated by the divorce, such as removal of possessions, changes in schedule, and relocation of one parent, can cause ever greater pain and anxiety, for the child may view both parents and the “new” family unit as unreal and inaccessible.
Sensivity Children in the throes of grief are extremely sensitive to others around them. They usually know who can stand their pain and who cannot. Mourning children have a self-protective intuition about who will tolerate their pain with them. The acknowledgment of the loss is meaningful to grieving children. Simply letting children know that adults care can provide great solace. One word of caution, however — it is essential that this support not be withdrawn too quickly. Every child is on his or her own time table when coming to terms with the divorce. The bereaved child needs loving support. Therefore, when support is withdrawn suddenly or without warning, it is like another loss. If the child does not seem to be recovering, or seems to be taking an inordinately long time, it is appropriate to suggest that a professional counselor might be able to provide additional assistance and insight.
Contributor: Carol Mapp, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Integrated Healthworks, who works with adolescents as well as adults and has extensive experience in Collaborative cases and as a counselor, trainer, and educator.