In a recent group for children ages 6-12 who have had a parent die, we asked, “What questions do you have about how the person died?”
The answers ranged from philosophic wonderings about the nature of death—(“Why did this have to happen to me and not someone else?”)—to confusion about concrete details – (“I know my dad had cancer, but what exactly killed him? Was it the treatment or something wrong with his liver?”) While sadness, anger, and anxiety are the emotions most commonly associated with grief, confusion and disbelief can be equally present for grievers of all ages. The questions that arise, moments and years after a death, vary greatly and often change over time. Some children want to know about the character and characteristics of the person who died. They have questions about dad’s favorite Thanksgiving food, mom’s friends growing up, their brother’s behavior as a baby, or sister’s dream vacation.
Other times, as in our recent group, they focus on the details of the death. For some children, knowing more details helps them to better understand what happened, and that knowledge can help alleviate anxiety. In the case of eight-year-old Megan, whose mother died in a car crash, she most wanted to know “the name of the other driver who killed my mom. I know the name of one of them, but I want to know the second one.” “When asked how knowing that would help her, Megan replied, “Well, if I knew, I could stop thinking about it so much and that would leave me way more brain space to do my math homework.” Unanswered questions rattle around in our minds and don’t allow us to address other activities, as Megan’s response illustrates!
As children grow older, their questions may shift away from wanting to know the person’s likes/dislikes and towards a curiosity about their loved one’s personality and character. Teens in our groups talk a lot about wondering what their parents were like at their age and how their personalities influenced decisions about dating, school, and life plans. As 14-year-old Adam shared, “I wish my dad was around to tell me how he figured out who to date and whether he was the kind of guy to ask first or if he let people chase after him.” Teens and young adults also wonder about the role parents and siblings might play in upcoming major life milestones. How would their dad act at graduation? Would their mom be supportive of their plan to move away from home? How did their brother figure out where to go for college? These teens and young adults are discovering who they are and where they want to go without the direction and support of their parent or sibling, leaving them with many questions.
At The Dougy Center, we don’t pretend to have the answers to these myriad questions that children, teens, young adults, and family members wrestle with. Instead, we create a space where they voice the inquiries and connect with others who are in a similar place of wondering. In some cases, children are satisfied with saying the question out loud and hearing that others think the same way. In others, they leave group with the courage and determination to ask other people in their family for information. What questions have you had in your own grief? How have they changed over time? Visit our Facebook to share more.