Commentary: Controlling what we cannot accept

October 15, 2013 

Editor’s note: This is the second column on grief and children that will run quarterly in this space. If you have an idea about a future column related to this topic, please be in touch:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

You may recognize this as the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1940s and often associated with 12-step programs. Perhaps more than a prayer, it is a theme for life meant to instill hope and humility, and to bring clarity to our thinking. One does not have to be a theologian or in addiction recovery to appreciate it.

Children, whether they can articulate it or not, hate to feel out of control as much as any adult. Temper tantrums in the grocery store; calling out from the darkness for the nightlight; and teenage rebellion, trying to prove they really do know who they are and what they want. These are all examples. When a particularly out-of-our-control life experience ushers in grief, feelings of unsettledness, disorientation, and isolation can be magnified.

Feeling out of control is intrinsic to grief. The loss of a loved one thrusts in our children’s faces the reality that adults cannot always prevent death nor bring back life once it is lost. Accepting death’s finality and the new reality it brings is an important part of healthy grieving, as captured in the first part of the Serenity Prayer. However, acceptance is only part of the story.

For adults shepherding a child through grief, feeling that there is something tangible to do to help that child is imperative. That is where the second part of the Serenity Prayer, the courage to change what you can, becomes important.

Researchers examining bereavement in children have discovered that, unsurprisingly, resilient children cope and adapt better. They have also found a child’s resiliency is not static and is influenced greatly by environment and interpersonal interactions. Children rely on the wisdom of caring adults to help them navigate stressful circumstances and put them in situations to engage in healthy coping behaviors.

If you are an adult caring for a grieving child, there are steps you can take to promote adaptation and coping. Research findings from child bereavement luminaries such as Drs. William Worden and Phyllis Silverman, as well as others, inform our understanding of how to positively impact children’s adaptation. There are six broad categories of things that adults can do for children, three of which directly relate to parenting:

•  Parent-child communication: talk honestly about death and create an environment where the child is comfortable asking questions and sharing experiences;

•  Positive parenting: provide warmth and empathy in interactions; carve out one-on-one time in the busy daily schedule;

• S table home: aim for consistency and predictability in household routines; ‘normal’ may not be attainable given your circumstances, but keeping things as routine as possible can be reassuring for the child.

The other three categories are:

•  Self-esteem: involve the child in activities they are good at and enjoy; praise the child’s positive attributes,

•  Social network: promote healthy friendships; arrange sleepovers and play dates; and

•  Continuing bonds: maintaining a connection with the deceased is helpful for children in most instances; reminisce about loved ones; reinforce positive aspects of the person who died. And a final point for widows or widowers with children: take time for yourself – advice that is much easier for us to give than for you to receive.

Serenity. Courage. Wisdom. These three words can go a long way in helping you engage as actively as you can with an experience that has changed your life and a child you love.

Hadley Kifner is a pediatric chaplain at UNC Hospitals. Justin M. Yopp is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UNC.

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