Children fear permanent loss, just as adults do. They need to do something to memorialize the person they miss. They may satisfy this need through prayer, reminiscing over pictures, recounting stories, or planting trees in honor of the person who died.
Creating a Living Memorial
When I work with teens who have suffered a loss, I try to help them create a living memorial. I start by asking them, "What are you going to do to honor his/her life?" Sometimes their answer is obvious and immediate; other times, they flounder. If they lost a friend or peer, I ask, "What was his/her dream?" The young person may be able to fulfill part of that dream in honor of the friend. If they've lost a dear relative (eg, a grandmother), I ask, "What was her dream for you?" I then help my patients come up with a goal that is consistent with the grandmother's dreams—one that is reachable but will take genuine effort to fulfill in the name of their grandmother.
I did that with a young patient whose favorite older cousin had been killed in a car crash. Tyra was inconsolable and talked of wanting to kill herself to be with her cousin. I knew she wanted me to talk her out of her suicidal feelings. Many of us might have near-hysterical reactions like, "You can't do that! What good would killing yourself do? That's ridiculous! You'd only add to your family's grief with another death! Now your grandmother would have 2 grandchildren to bury!"
A Decision Tree Approach
I took another approach. As we talked, I sketched a decision tree that forked in 2 directions. One took the negative direction, the series of events that would likely unfold if she did harm herself. I led her through a series of hypothetical questions:
- "Who would you leave behind?
- How would your mother and father feel?
- What would your younger cousins think and feel? Your friends?
- What things would you leave unfinished or untried?"
Tyra filled in the answers. "No high school diploma, no job, no marriage or family of my own. I'd never get to see my little sister grow up." She saw these options sketched out, but concluded, "I don't feel any better."
Then I drew a tree branch in another direction and led her through questions that would lead her to a more positive outcome. "What was your cousin like, Tyra? What were his dreams? What were his dreams for you?"
As she answered, I scribbled down her answers. Her cousin had been a musician. He'd written poetry. He had recently become a father and left behind a wife and 6-month-old daughter. He had told Tyra that he hoped she'd be a mother someday because he knew she'd be a good one.
Then I asked her, "How can you honor him and his memory?" As she offered answers, I wrote them down. She would make sure his daughter knew who he was. She would put together a book of his poems and songs and give the book to his daughter when she was older.
This simple technique of sketching a decision tree helped Tyra realize that she had better options than killing herself. I knew she never wanted to, but her grief prevented her from seeing another alternative. As soon as she recognized other possible paths, she knew which direction to take. Our conversation didn't erase her grief or anger at her cousin's early tragic death, but she found a way to embrace her grief and honor her cousin.
Helping Children Focus on the Person's Qualities
As sad and distressed as a child is whenever a loved one dies, you can help her focus on the person's qualities and give something back in the person's honor. This gives a young person a coping strategy and knowledge that she has some control. Ultimately, this contributes to her resilience.