November 13, 2012

Working With Grieving Children

My son, John Dyson, is a senior at Maryville University and currently enrolled in the class, "Religion, Death and Dying." One of his assignments was to interview someone who works with those who are grieving or dying. I was honored when he asked if he could interview me. What follows is the paper he wrote based on that interview:

When I first started thinking about a subject for my interview paper about someone who deals with death and dying, I immediately went to my own mother, Pam Dyson. She is a Child Development Expert, Parenting Coach, Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist. A play therapist is someone who works with children directly, observes a child interacting with toys, and deciphers their actions to create a plan that helps them tackle issues and challenges that need to be addressed. Play therapy is relatively new and she has become a highly respected expert in her field. She became interested in working with children when she began a career in early childhood education.

Pam describes why she focuses not only on her child clients but also on the adults in the child's life. "Understanding children from a developmental perspective is important when working with children as it equips me with the information that I need to assist parents in helping their children work through challenging life experiences such as grief. Even though I'm a child therapist I work with adults because I rarely work with a child without collaborating with their parents."

When asked if religion has any influence on her private practice she replied, "I'm not a faith-based therapist but I am mindful and respectful of the spiritual and cultural beliefs of the clients I work with. For instance, knowing the rituals (both formal and informal, faith and culturally based) related to how they outwardly mourned the death will be helpful to me in understanding how they've been processing the loss up to this point."

Pam typically begins her work on this topic by educating the parents on what children can understand about grief. This depends on the age of the child and the experiences they've been going through. "I tell them what emotions children experience and behaviors that my be exhibited after the death of someone significantly close to them. This is followed by specific suggestions on how they can help their child based on what their child is experiencing and feeling. For example, a child who has lost a parent might be worried that the other parent will die. The surviving parent can tell their child that they don't plan on dying anytime soon because they are taking care of themselves by wearing a seat belt, eating healthy food, exercising, etc.," she explains.

Once she understands what the child is feeling about the loss, Pam uses a variety of techniques that help the child deal with the stages of grief. She talks about using various resources such as objects that represent emotions. "I often introduce the grieving child and family to the book, Tear Soup. It centers on a woman who has suffered a loss so she heads to the kitchen to make a batch of soup. She seasons the soup with memories of the good and bad times and the silly and sad time. I bring a cooking pot into our therapy session and, like the woman in the book, we make a pot of pretend soup by adding memories jotted down or drawn on small pieces of paper. My child clients also create a Memory Box. They find a container, such as a shoebox; they cover it with paper and decorate it in any way they would like. Inside the box they put items that remind them of the person who died. Items might include photographs, an object or objects that belonged to that person such as a key, piece of jewelry, article of clothing, etc. The box should be displayed in a special place in the home like the child's room or fireplace mantle where it's visible at all times. Looking at the contents and handling them can help a child fee close to their loved one."

Pam shared some of the challenges she faces when dealing with a child's grief. "The biggest challenge is helping parents understand grief from their child's perspective. Children grieve differently than adults. If a child was very young when the loss occurred the child will re-grieve as they get older. Each time a child hits a developmental milestone he or she will revisit the loss and look at it from a more abstract perspective. This can be difficult for the adults in the child's world to understand because they have often processed their own grief and moved on. They sometimes need to be reminded to be patient and understanding with their child. They also have to be prepared to once again talk about the death which in turn can bring some of their previous feelings about death back to the surface.

Pam also has some advice to give to parents with children who are grieving that can benefit the entire family. "Sometimes people think that as they process their grief and move on with their lives they will forget about the person who died. I find it helpful to suggest ways for both children and adults to commemorate the person who died so that they are never forgotten but always remembered. For instance, at a holiday gathering, the family might want to sit a place at the table for the deceased relative. They may want to take turns sharing a favorite memory they have of the person who died. A small celebration on the anniversary of their special person's birthday can include preparing that person's favorite meal. The most important message I have for families who are grieving is that they will never get over the loss but that with time the pain will subside and the legacy of their loved one will lie within them."

She concluded: "There are a couple of myths in our society regarding children and death that can affect a child's grieving. One is that children don't grieve and the other is that we need to protect children by shielding them from loss. I often find myself challenged with debunking these myths. It's important for adults to understand that children do grieve and that when we don't give them accurate age-appropriate information about death they feel confused and struggle with making sense of what happened. When I am able to help a grieving child and their family process their emotions, commemorate their loved one and continue to move on with their lives I know I've done my job. Giving them hope is both professionally and personally rewarding.