I recently heard a story about a girl whose mother had died. The girl was 12 and was described as being stoic. Whenever I am told that a bereaved person (especially a child) is a stoic I wince. The implication seems to convey a sense that the child is being brave and that the impact of the death does not seem to be too bad.
Jonathon Swift wrote; ‘a stoic would cut off their feet for want of shoes’. Sometimes what is going on in such bereavement cases is that the adults that are left in the orbit of the child are projecting something of their own wish to cut off the subject of parental death.
The idea that the child is a stoic is a defence against the experience of loss
Childhood bereavement is a terrible blow. Death is a difficult experience at any point but to meet it in childhood, particularly in relation to a losing a parent is doubly terrible. It is an impossible experience and it is this impossibility that is part of what is often taken for stoicism.
The child has been met with an experience that is too much for them. It isn’t just that the loss is too much, it’s that the subject of loss is impossible to know how to respond to. Being too much, the experience of the death falls inward, into the private recesses of the child’s mind. This is the child’s way of containing this impossible experience.
To the outside world this private and unknowable act of containment becomes read as stoicism. The stoicism is all too easily read as a sign that the child is ok. This response is particularly provoked in adults left in the company of a bereaved child. They are at a loss to know what to say about the death and are grateful to find this solution. The adults don’t know how to talk about it.
So what can be said of what is going on inside the child’s mind?
The child locks down their impossible experience of death and simultaneously becomes locked in with it. The lack of words compromises thought. The death is intensely real and something that it is very hard to know what can be said about it. Perhaps for the moment nothing can be said about it.
Childhood is over. The child is let down by the world. Shocked into internal rigidity. Something is needed to help gradually rehabilitate the child. Some kind of sensitive intervention that will loosen the rigidity forming inside the child’s mind and psyche.
How can the surviving parent help?
The surviving adults, the surviving parent, are not required to be experts in grief counselling, but they are required to be there and to be prepared to admit the loss that has happened. To be willing to connect with the child in whatever way is necessary. This can gradually facilitate the recovery of spontaneous movements, sound and speech from the child.
The object is to demonstrate that you are there. You don’t know what to say either in response to this dreadful catastrophe, but you are there too, sharing the impossible.
This act of often silent companionship can facilitate the loosening up of the internal rigidity. The child’s mind can become free to play again. Really the subject of the death will be a life’s work for the child. When you lose a parent at a young age you live the death through your life. There is always the fact that you have lost someone who might have made all the difference to you.
The adults’ silent response, the wish to see the experience of bereavement as stoical is an attempt to banish death.
- Just like the child there is a wish that this hadn’t happened.
- Just like the child the adults don’t know what to say.
It is fine not knowing what to say
But it becomes problematic when that is used as a reason to forget, and turn away from what has happened. It becomes problematic when not knowing what to say becomes translated into an idea that nothing has happened.
Silence tends to lead onto more silence and this increases the rigidity surrounding the subject of the death and the restricted internal world of the child.
When I hear that a child is stoic in response to a death I wince. I think processes are in play within and around the child to shut down the experience and expression of grief. They are like an ice age gripping the child’s world. Some kind of warmth is required to gently thaw that world. But often a fear of everything about the death means that warmth is never applied.
If you meet a bereaved child who is described as stoic, don’t be put off, don’t turn away too quickly. See if you can offer some warmth whenever you are with them. Just thinking about it while you are with them might be a good start.