When a child has experienced a significant loss, such as the death of a parent, grandparent or other close family member, that child’s caregiver has a significant responsibility in helping the child to mourn in a healthy way. In my last essay, I wrote about some strategies that parents or caregivers can use with their children in the midst and immediate aftermath of this kind of family loss.
Grieving, however, is not a quick process, and children need support over time to help them process and adjust to a death. Grieving cannot be completed in a healthy way unless the child has space to express his or her feelings about their loss, and for many children that self-expression happens through imaginative play.
Several years ago, before I started incorporating play materials into my practice, I provided the children that I worked with in therapy with musical instruments only. Over time, I discovered that I would be a play therapist whether I wanted to be one or not — all of my small percussion instruments quickly became characters in the various dramatic enactments that my child clients created. One time, a six-year- old child lined up every small percussion instrument in my office — maracas, jingle bells, egg shakers, mallets, etc. — behind a box-shaped drum called a slit drum and announced that this was the funeral procession that was leading up to the burial of the red maraca’s father. I assisted him, per his instruction, in moving the procession of guests toward the imaginary cemetery, located under the piano bench.
This child was working on his feelings about his own father’s death in a very direct, concrete way, but a child’s means of working through feelings of grief through play can be variable, depending on the types of feelings that the child is coping with inside. Caregivers might also witness anger or aggression in a child’s play, where the characters will yell or behave violently toward each other. Play is the way that children express what is happening in their psyche. Often it is a good idea to find a play therapist to help your child work through their feelings with play.
If, as a parent or caregiver, there are opportunities to observe a child at play, healing and restorative themes can also be witnessed. I once worked with a seven-year- old girl whose mother had died in the hospital. When I arrived at her home for our visit, she had gathered every single doll she owned around the bed and explained to me that this was a hospital, and each of these children were here to be treated. She listed their diagnoses one by one, ranging from a broken arm to cancer (the disease that had killed her mother). She then told me that one of those dolls wanted to sing a lullaby to another, and asked me to play the guitar. She began to improvise words and a melody, speaking through the dolls (and, metaphorically, to herself) about why it was going to be okay and how she could be soothed.
A very important task of grieving, once the myriad feelings have been expressed and worked on through therapy, play, the arts, or all three, is to relocate the deceased person and find a way to establish a new relationship with him or her. For many adults and children alike, this means finding ways to connect to memories and feel a sense of the deceased person’s presence. Often we find that connection in religious institutions or at a burial or memorial site, but it is helpful to have other ways to remember and connect to that important person. A variety of art projects or ways of connecting to nature can help children to memorialize the person they have lost, and the final product can be kept as a keepsake and memory of that person’s love.
As a closing thought, it is important for parents and caregivers to remember that a child’s experience of grief can be an ongoing process that changes over time. In addition to changes in intensity as certain feeling states or life adjustments are worked through, a child will be faced with the task of renegotiating the meaning of his or her loss again and again as he or she grows and must address the impact of missing the important person during important life milestones. Imagine, for instance, a ten-year-old who loses her mother. Even if that child completed a healthy grieving process in the couple of years immediately following her mother’s death, she will doubtless revisit its meaning and the corresponding pain when she reaches major life milestones such as puberty, her first romantic attachment, graduation from high school, etc.
Loss is a part of life that is always difficult, but with attention and attunement it is possible for parents and caregivers to make a child’s grieving process one that is ultimately meaningful and healing.
Meghan is a licensed creative arts therapist and a board-certified music therapist with over ten years of experience working with children, adolescents and adults. At her private practice in Brooklyn, she incorporates Depth Psychology, Vocal Psychotherapy and In-Depth Music Therapy to work with children and adults struggling with loss in their lives and with those who are looking for a creative way to understand themselves. Her style of therapy is client-led, and focuses on self- expression through music and/or the creative process. She can be reached at: [email protected] or by phone at 646-450-1644. Learn more about music psychotherapy at http://MeghanHinman.com