Of the painful moments of the death of someone close, few are more poignant than watching the effects of death through the eyes of a child. My young grandson sat patiently in the foyer outside funeral home while the adults were inside, distraught over the death of my son, his uncle. Throughout the process, the visitation, the service, the dispersion of possessions, my grandson was rarely soulful but generally upbeat and positive. Despite being close to his uncle, he saw him regularly, this nine-year-old was a visual picture of hope for the rest of us.
Research suggests that youngsters handle the death of a sibling differently than adults. While most children learn to cope in their own way, some turn to more aggressive behaviors. In one study the authors showed how younger children may act out. Older children such as adolescents often use adult like outlets to express their grief.
While the younger child’s behavior could be seen as “aggressive,” it was surmised their behavior was to gain attention. This is certainly understandable, they lost someone close to them, their world has been disrupted. Their routine changes. They may miss school, certain practices, or church services. They may not see friends or miss their unstructured alone time to play.
Their parents are likely focused more on the child that died. Initially, the child may be compliant and respectful, fulfilling their role by dressing up, being helpful, and watching others mourn from a short distance. At an inopportune moment they could experience a fit that brings attention along with embarrassment.
“They’re fine,” a parent may think and they are generally right. They are handling the grief but temporary changes can be anticipated. In “Pattern of Grief in Young Children Following the Death of a Sibling,” Darline McCown and Betty Davies note that many children in her study exhibited behaviors such as “argues a lot, demands a lot of attention, and “is disobedient at home.”
They made the distinction these behaviors are not necessarily aggressive but are a way to garner the attention of their parents. They suggested rather than view these behaviors as hostile, they can be viewed as adaptive. Further, they recommended parents be aware of this possibility and give their children as much positive attention as possible. Finally, they assure us, the children in the study were not pathological, they were grieved.
At a young age I remember sitting with a friend who had just lost two of his younger siblings. We may have been nine-years-old, and neither of us knew what to do. We saw the women crying on the couch. We saw the cakes and cookies piling up on the dining room table. We sat on the stoop outside where the men were smoking cigarettes.
In time a neighbor man came by and told the parents, “I came home from work early. I’m going to take these two down to baseball field.” After his red-eyed father gave him a hug, the three of us walked down Cleveland Avenue to the field.
And that is what he did. For the next hour or so, the neighbor hit grounders and fly balls to us, he pitched to us, and we played catch. My friend really wasn’t in to it but went through the motions until he said he was ready to go home.
At such a young age, neither of us realized just how important it was to do something “normal” during such an abnormal time. Baseball is what we knew back then and neither of us were very good but it didn’t matter. We played all summer. We watched it on TV. We could play a game with only two people. Baseball was life. And for a time, an adult paid attention and that’s what Jimmy needed.
He needed what we all need; to know that at a time when we feel we will never be the same, when we can’t do a thing, that in the middle of all things ugly – we catch a fly ball, feel the arm of someone who cares around our shoulder, and know that we are loved.
With our gloves dangling on the end of our bats we carried on our shoulders, we walked back up Cleveland Avenue, took a deep breath, and went home.
That was fifty years ago and I still remember it. The memory is painful but it carries meaning. It reminds me that even when I heard my daughter tell my grandson, “Jay, Uncle Aaron, he’s dead,” that I can be that man who put his arm around a youngster to let them know they will be alright, they also are loved.
Andy is a Clinical Psychologist who lost his son in a tragic motorcycle accident and now authors articles on bereavement. Look forward to his upcoming posts, quiz, and book, “When Sunday Smiled.” Visit his website at AndyMDavidson.com and Facebook.com/ThroughLifeandLoss to find out more about prolonged grief.