“Mommy, Ryan's not being kind!” I hear my four year old, Asher, yell from the next room. Our dear friends, who we’ve seen every Wednesday since Asher and Ryan were babies, are staying with us at my mom’s house since we were all evacuated as a result of the recent floods here in Colorado. Ryan has been through an extremely challenging year punctuated by several extreme losses, and while his parents are as attentive, loving, and compassionate as they can be, sometimes it’s just too much for a little guy to process. When his own internal floods rise up, the overflow sometimes comes out in the form of pushing boundaries and prodding others.
“Ryan, are you trying to hurt me?” Asher asks.
“Yes,” Ryan replies with a mischievous grin on his face.
Ryan is one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met and I know he doesn’t want hurt Asher. I see it’s time we sit down and talk this through, so I sit closely to Ryan while my older son, age 9, and Asher listen in.
“Ryan, sometimes when we have a lot of hurt inside we want to hurt someone else. But I know you don’t really want to hurt Asher. I bet you felt pretty scared when that water was rushing through your driveway and basement. What was that like?” I’m encouraging him to tell the story, as that’s a primary way that kids process traumatic events.
“Yes, it was scary. The water was rushing in and it was higher than Mommy’s desk!”
“Wow. That’s a lot of water. Did you see the water in the basement?” More questions illicit more information.
“Yes, and it was a lot of water. And then we went to our neighbor’s house because Daddy wasn’t home yet.” His dad was out of town and he raced back home just before the road was washed away.
“That must have been scary,” I say, giving him the language to express those feelings.
“And I imagine you felt pretty sad, too. I know I feel very sad, and I’m sure Everest and Asher feel sad, too. This is a really hard time. And we need to find ways to express our sadness and let it out without hurting our friends.”
As I sat rubbing Ryan’s back, my boys listened with rapt attention. I’ve never seen three children listen more closely to the words of an adult. It was as if I was handing them a spiritual transfusion that was helping them make sense of the confusion that has been knocking around haphazardly inside of them for the past several days. They listened in silence to every word, absorbing every nuance of Ryan's story, as if in him telling his story it was helping them to process their own. We had a mini Council sitting there across the two couches. No talking stick. No incense. No candles. Just three boys and a mama giving them language for the inner turmoil that had been affecting them for days.
After that, there was calm for the rest of the day. In fact, Ryan and Asher decided to draw the flood over and over again. They filled dozens of pieces of paper with their colorful renditions of the flood. Everest watched but chose not to participate. Alongside talking directly about the experience and encouraging children to tell the story over and over again, kids also respond to less direct forms of processing feelings, like art and play. A significant portion of their games this past week has centered around floods.
Later I thought about how the dominant discipline advice would have instructed to give Ryan a time out until he can “be nice”, and how little that does to teach children about the root causes of their behavior. Furthermore, it creates a “good child/bad child” model, where the child himself feels good or bad depending on how well he’s able to conform to the expectations of their caregivers. The other children learn that there are “good kids” and “bad kids” and that if they behave “wrong” then they’re relegated to the bad child category. I can’t tell you how many of my clients, as adults, live with a pervasive sense that they’re bad, wrong, broken, or unworthy in some way. How much of that was caused by parents, teachers, and caregivers who punished them as children for acting out their painful feelings in ways that hurt other kids instead of offering guidance for how to handle those feelings in healthy ways? I’m not saying it’s easy to know what to say or how to guide children through grief and loss, but it sure would be nice if new parents, alongside the care package they receive in the hospital, were given a little handbook called, “How to talk to kids about their feelings.”
As I relayed the above story to Ryan’s mom, we mused about the odd fact that children have no trouble screaming their heads off with giant tears rolling down their cheeks when someone gives them the wrong toothbrush or a friend ruins their favorite toy, but that they don’t seem to cry directly about serious losses like a loved one dying or a flood tearing apart their home and turning their life upside down. “It comes out sideways,” I say to her. To which she wholeheartedly agreed.
And grief shows up differently for each child.
Ryan seems to take his pain and displace it onto others in the form of overt poking, jabbing, and chasing. Asher turns grumpy and loud, screaming about little things like wanting to go upstairs while we’re waiting for his big brother, as well as prodding in more subtle ways. And Everest, who is highly attuned to loss on a daily basis, seems to be taking this in stride. It’s almost as if all of our discussions about loss and change – even the change of days or seasons – seems to have somehow prepared him for this monumental, life-changing loss. I imagine that this will affect Everest for months to come, but so far the grief hasn’t manifested overtly.
Of course, in order for adults to guide their children through grief they need to attend lovingly to their own grief. I’ve vacillated between allowing my boys see me cry and protecting them from the floodgates that surged through me every evening and morning those first few days. When we finally went back to the house to see the damage (it’s not in livable condition yet), I told them that I would probably cry and that it’s okay if they feel sad. When I did cry and they both looked at me with concern I said, “Crying gets the sad out.” They seemed to accept that. To read more about my process of grieving our full flood story, click here.
It’s also essential to offer a context for the grief process. We’ve talked many times with the kids that just as spring always follows autumn and winter, so hope and possibility always follow destruction. This too shall pass, we remind them. We say this not to invalidate their grief or convince them to “look at the bright side” but to remind them that it’s through feeling the sorrow that the joy arrives.
In the end, there is no easy way to help children grieve. We do the best we can and understand that grieving will show up differently for each child, which means they will have their own process regarding moving it through. And it’s essential to understand that grieving isn’t a one-time process: Kids need to tell their story hundreds of times or draw a hundred pictures or a re-enact the flood a hundred times through play. But given the space and the words, they will work it through and hopefully grow through the experience in positive ways instead of feeling scarred and scared by it. For it’s an unarguable truth that life includes loss, and if we can learn early in life how to handle these losses, we won’t need to build walls later in life to protect against it.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide via her private practice, her e-courses and programs, her books, and her website, http://conscious-transitions.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Her home study course for pregnant women and new mothers, Birthing a New Mother: A Roadmap from Preconception Through the First Year to Calm Your Anxiety, Prepare Your Marriage, and Become the Mother you Want to Be, can be found at http://birthinganewmother.com. She lives in Boulder, Colorado where she and her husband homeschool their two sons.