Reward: Helping children in grief

August 5th, 2014

Sometimes people are open and honest with me because they think I know what I’m talking about. Don’t all people in leadership roles? At the same time, though, people clam up because they worry about “doing their grief wrong,” as if I might have to interrupt them when they talk about dreaming of the person who died or feeling rage toward God. It is in those moments, when I realize my role is limiting a person’s openness, that I wish I wasn’t representing any particular role at all. The roles we play in people’s lives are important, but they are not uncomplicated or without expectations.

I am reminded of a fourteen-year-old teen at Good Grief (the children’s bereavement center where I’m the CEO). I like to think I have an important role in his life, though I do not provide him with anything special other than laughter and listening, which is to say that I listen to all of his jokes and laugh on cue. Recently, when I asked nocuous questions about Cam’s (not his real name) school life and how he was coping in the classroom, he seemed to dodge the question. I was not sure why, but I made it about me and assumed it was because he worried that I might tell him how to fix his problems.

One night not too long ago, however, I was roaming the halls of Good Grief while groups were in session, making sure everyone was safe and where they were supposed to be. Cam’s group left their door open, and while I wandered the halls, probably on my iPhone to catch up on e-mails, I heard his voice: “. . . and then when those boys bullied my friend, I put down my bag, went up to them, and I explained to them in very clear terms that life is unfair. Making it harder for anyone is not an option.” Cam then went on to say, “I told my friend about all the people at school who helped me when my dad died so that he didn’t have to defend himself alone.”

When a child experiences the death of someone he or she loves, especially a relationship as integral to the family unit as a parent or sibling, that child is changed. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that assumes the impact of grief ruins a child’s life—that it negatively alters him or her in a way that is irresolvable, as if to suggest that when that child’s parent died, the child might as well have died, too. It sounds dramatic; but it’s the reality in which children grieve and try to reimagine their lives without a parent or sibling. As children try to imagine their new world, we must try to imagine what has been handed to them and the harm we collectively create as a result of our cultural norms, which consistently tremble in the presence of grief and isolate the bereaved.

Nothing about Cam’s life is over. He is a smart, kind, and (I’ll admit) funny kid. Cam is facing life without his dad and with all the consequences that accompany that fact. However, he is working hard to normalize his life and  find meaning. Standing up to a bully isn’t easy, but one is able to take those risks when he or she understands grief.

Life has ups and downs for many of us. Some difficulties are life-changing, and some make it hard to  find a way back to happiness. And yet, despite the abundance of death and the grief that can accompany life, we are able to continue living because we are a resilient people.

It’s resiliency that employs me. My role is defined by whatever hope I am able to possess in the face of suffering. It is also de ned by my willingness to step outside of myself and facilitate a process in which a kid is able to see his own resilience despite the presence of suffering.

Children are defined by more than the deaths and grief experienced in childhood. And those of us who serve in roles charged with embodying compassion and justice are not defined by our ability to  fix that which simply is, but by our ability to allow resilience to emerge. It’s that ability to hold onto hope that allows a child to live a life that courageously faces each day without those he or she loves. And when we can step outside of ourselves, we’ll more fully know the purpose of our roles.

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