French Toast Sundays shows the week of mourning through the eyes of a child.
Kids Talk Grief is a series of interviews and guest blog posts from children or young people all of whom have had to deal with the loss of someone close to them. (Some of the names and personal details have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Dana is an 18-year-old high school senior. She was 6 years old when her mother passed away from breast cancer.
What are your memories of the shiva?
I really remember it as a busy time with lots of people in the house all the time, I enjoyed seeing all my family even in such a difficult time and lots of my friends came round. I remember that my school organised for a different child to come to my house for a couple of hours every day from the class so that I saw friends every day and this made things more normal. This was so beneficial for me as it helped me forget about the pain and actually to some extent enjoy what should have been an extremely difficult week.
How did the adults relate to you, and what did you like and dislike?
I remember so clearly during what must have been the shiva, since there were many people bustling around, sitting on the couch with my Grandfather and looking over a booklet that my class had made me where each child had drawn a picture of me to cheer me up. We were analysing the pictures and laughing at them as 6 year olds are generally not completely accurate in their depictions of people. This is just one of the very positive memories I have from that time and it's because it was a memory just like any other with my Grandfather. It is these sorts of interactions that I appreciated, little escapes from the grief, moments of relaxing, and just being as a 6 year old child should.
On most days I didn't want people's sympathy, or funeral looks, I appreciated those adults who interacted with me in fun, kind and gentle manners, so that I felt comfortable to speak about what was on my mind if I so wished, but it didn't feel like the elephant in the room, as they saw me first and foremost as a 6 year old child, not as a person who'd just lost a close relative.
What did you find difficult in your interactions with people?
The most difficult interactions I had over the years following my mother's death were those with other children. Adults encourage children to be sensitive around a child experiencing what I was experiencing, but children never know how to do this right. I remember children averting their eyes from me in the corridors, excluding me in games because they were playing orphans in the games and didn't want to upset me and even telling me that they knew how I felt, they still missed their old car which their parents had sold sometimes but you eventually got over it. The best interactions that I had with other children were ones that were exactly the same as before the death. Sometimes, adults warn children to act a certain way since they are afraid that otherwise the child may say something that could cause upset. But I think that such young children do more damage by their misguided attempts to be sensitive. I didn't mind if other children mentioned their mothers, or we played a game where we were orphans, as this made life feel normal, I just didn't want to feel excluded and feel different because of what had happened.
Why were certain approaches more effective?
Many adults want to encourage a child whose experienced death of relative to open up and talk to them, so that they can help the child, but this cannot be enforced. I didn't want to talk about my experiences much at all and certainly not with people that I didn't already have a strong, existing bond with. Those adults who I did feel comfortable with and did talk to over the years were those who didn't ask me outwardly to open up, but who I had an enjoyable time with, and who made me feel comfortable to speak to them if I so wished. It takes time to build relationships, and once those were built with me, based on fun, laughter and kindness, then and only then did I feel inclined to talk to those people. A relationship with any young child must first be established on the child's terms, and a grieving child is no different.
What do adults not 'get' about a child whose experienced loss?
In my situation, some adults treated me over-sensitively, and some adults, at the other extreme, would avoid conversing with me due to being unsure how to act and give me little attention. A balance must be found, and I think that adults must realise that a child who has lost a close relative needs to be given that extra bit of attention and love that they are lacking and, aside from that, be treated as an utterly normal child.