Children’s Grief Awareness Day is November 19th. Guest blogger Kate Thome, a member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, shares her memories of surviving loss and how children learn emotional intelligence from the death of someone they love.
How Do You Go On?: What we learn about Optimism from Grieving Children
More and more we hear about the Growth Mindset, fostering resilience and grit. These are the characteristics of a Six Seconds optimist. These are people who can take a setback and realize that it is Temporary, Isolated and Event-driven (TIE) rather than Permanent, Pervasive and Personal (PPP). I love this idea but must admit to struggling with it. When I woke up the morning after my eighth birthday, it was to the sound of a phone ringing. New York Hospital called to say that my father had died. There is nothing temporary about the death of a parent.
However, the more I considered the idea and tried to understand why so many great leaders and achievers had some enormous difficulty in their childhood, I had to wonder what could we learn from these children? Recently, Stephen Colbert, winner of Emmys and Peabody’s opened up about losing family members as a child.
They are forced to accept the world with all of its faults, disappointments, and challenges and grow up and live in it as it is. Grieving children grapple with the idea that they will live their entire lives in an imperfect, highly unstable world. It’s terrifying. Nothing will bring back the life they knew when their parent was alive. So, how can they apply TIE? Do they do it without being taught? Here’s why I think they do.
Temporary – While their loss is permanent, somewhere deep down these children understand that their feelings at any given moment are temporary. You may find them laughing and crying at the same moment. This is ok and normal. When we are faced with a life altering challenge, one that is permanent, we can reflect on the emotion we experience at any given moment and savor it.
I think of a day I went to the beach with my cousins shortly after my father died. We ran up and down the dunes, rolled up our pants and played in the surf. I laughed at myself when I fell into the sand. I squealed with delight at the chill of the ocean water on my feet, and I felt connection to all the people I loved as the sea spray hit my face.
Of course I knew that my father was dead and not coming back. I also knew that I wasn’t dead. It was up to me to make the most of this moment – this temporary, wonderful day that I’d remember for the rest of my life. Before you marvel at an eight-year-old thinking that way, please realize that in many ways grieving children have very adult sensibilities about time and life based on what they’ve faced. They have a wisdom way beyond their typical developmental stage. We have much to learn from them.
Isolated – At times, grieving children will be overwhelmed at the enormity of what’s happened in their lives. It seems to consumer their whole existence. Suddenly you are no longer, “Kate, the girl in the class who is really good at ballet.” To “Kate, the girl whose father died.” This feeling never really leaves them. What these children can do and often do is find a passion. This can be service or skill oriented. Grieving children know what pain is and want to help others however they can.
Often, you’ll see a grieving child be the first to stop and offer a hand to someone who stumbles, to help someone struggling with packages, to grow up and become a doctor, or lawyer or researcher. They know that they are more than their loss. While their loss is always in the back of their mind, their feeling of helplessness is not.
They know that their power comes from isolating the experience of the loss to make change in the world. For some the need to change something about the world and to prevent or alleviate suffering is as strong as the need for air or water. That’s not to say that there’s a silver lining to death or everything happens for a reason.
Those in grief know that things happen without a good reason all over the world every single day and find those platitudes both insulting and insensitive. The difference is that they chose to use the other, isolated moments in life to better the world. There’s an existential bravery in knowing the world is a calamitous place and still wishing to be a part of improving it.
Event-Driven – When a parent dies, a child’s life is forever changed. My own mother described the day her mother died. In an odd coincidence, she was also eight. “I remember sitting in a chair in the living room. The doctor walked out the front door. Our house was silent and dark. No one told the children. I knew my mother was dead. It was another time and adults behaved differently toward children.” The loneliness she felt that day was not something she’d forget. Since that day she’s had wonderful days and horrible days, including the day her husband died, leaving her a widow at thirty-eight.
For many years, she had a party in our house on Christmas night. She invited every person in our town – and they came. One year, when I was in college, she sent me to the basement to re-stock the drinks behind the bar. I stepped off the last step and found myself ankle deep in water. The water heater rusted out and flooded the entire basement. When I went upstairs to tell her about, she handed a pair of rain boots. “Well, go get the rest of it. No one’s coming to pump the basement tonight.”
I marveled that she wasn’t panicked sending people home or reeling with the prospect of a sizeable bill for water damage and a new water heater. The event she was focused on – being with people and bringing them joy was upstairs. The event threatening to destroy her night was simply that one event- one that can and should wait. She locked the basement door and didn’t open it the rest of the night.
Grieving children deal with the most adult subject – death – every single day of their lives. Adults may marvel, “How do you go on?” The children may answer, “I just do.” They internalized grit to a point where they may be unable to articulate or even recognize it in themselves. They have mastered it.
The person they lost will never attend their graduation, their wedding, or even take a slice of a small breakfast birthday cake. Yet, they go on and become graduates, spouses, parents and eat their own birthday cakes. They just do those things with more than the typical “happy feelings.”
That takes courage and grit – making those moments all the sweeter for it. In short, the lesson we learn from grieving children is to be grateful for every single moment as we live it – because it’s all we have and it’s what we chose to make of it. If that’s not optimism, I don’t know what is.
Kate Thome is a writer and consultant in Northern California. Her writing appears at Mutha! Magazine, Grief Healing, Talking Soup and on LinkedIn. She holds a BA in Philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross and an MBA from the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. A member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, she blogs about her memoir in process at http://irememberthatnight.blogspot.com.