I attended the ATTACh conference fall of 2016 in St. Louis. Cynthia Agbayani of Lifeworks Outreach Services, Inc. spoke on helping adopted youth grieve losses.
Agbayani noted that a youth once told her that their “heart was cracked” and another stated “if I start crying, I won’t stop”. Too often we assume we know what youth are feeling throughout their journey in foster care and adoption and treat them accordingly, but do we stop to ask them how they perceive their experience? It’s scary and uncomfortable to talk about grief and all too often we tend to avoid it, saying “it’s okay”, “don’t be sad”, “don’t cry”, “it’s fine”. While we come from a good place in saying those things, we really may be dismissing the true feelings a child is sharing with us. Their feelings are hurt. They are scared. Their hearts are cracked. And they are opening up to tell us that and we are essentially telling them to stop when we use those common statements.
There is a difference in grief vs. trauma. Processing grief leaves a general feeling of sadness, it can bring relief, and if there is anger, it is usually non-violent. Processing trauma can lead to feelings of terror, feeling unsafe, and anger maybe physically violent (Levine and Kline, 2007). While grief is healed through emotional release and tends to diminish over time, trauma involves flashbacks, startling, and other symptoms that may worsen over time.
With grief, Agbayani stresses the importance of clearly and honestly answering primary questions for youth, such as “will I ever see my parents again?” or “what will happen to my parents?”. Glossing over this information will cause confusion and further stress for a child. Your ability to answer these questions for your child and assist them in managing their grief will impact your child’s ability to develop a secure attachment to you as they continue to age. Normal mourning may include expectations of return, persisting memories, fear of additional losses, and feelings of sadness that will come and go. Symptoms of failed mourning could include feelings of anxiety, insecurity, as well as blame and guilt. Youth may have bursts of overactivity, and may have an increase in anti-social, delinquent or depressive behaviors. They may feel like something is medically wrong with them when there is not, or may become more self-reliant. Keep in mind, while not all youth that demonstrate these activities have “failed mourning”, they are things to keep in mind as you parent youth from tough places.
To help a child grieve losses, here are some ideas given by Agbayani:
As the caregiver, make a list of what may be triggering to your child so you can pay attention to those situations.
Provide your child with age appropriate answers to questions they have, regardless of how uncomfortable that question may be for you.
Allow your child choices in situations that permit this.
Stick to routine as much as you are able.
Help your child practice answering questions that peers, teachers, and other adults may ask them (and help them in understanding that it is okay to not share personal information if they do not feel comfortable in doing so). Give them ideas of what words to use.
Make a safe container to hold your child’s heartbreak and anger.
Help your child recognize their strong feelings and sensations.
Make a life timeline, listing memories, stories, happy and sad times.
(Levine and Kline, 2007)
And keep in mind, youth are not so different from adults. When we are struggling or grieving, we often call our friends or family, or find someone to talk through and process our experiences with. Your child also needs to process their grief with others who listen with empathy in order to grieve successfully (James and Friedman, 2001).
Grief does not completely go away. It will come and go in various ways as your child ages. How you talk about it with your child now will have a huge effect on their ability to handle their grief as they get older.
If you have questions on helping your child process their experiences or would like recommendations for services or providers, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-551-6349.
Books referenced in this post:
Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing, by Maggie Kline and Peter A. Levine
When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses, by John w. James, Russell Friedman, and Leslie Matthews