Children: the Forgotten Grievers

by Diane Rooks.

“Remember the children,” Matt Heavilin wrote, as he autographed the book for me that he and his mother coauthored. Their book, Grief is a Family Affair, offers many examples of how children are often the forgotten grievers following the death of a family member. Not only do most people think children can get over a loss because they are so young, they fail to realize that children revisit and reprocess a significant loss as they enter each new developmental stage. The memories persist, but often there is no one to help clarify the unresolved issues that can manifest in many destructive ways. And as storyteller Elizabeth Ellis said recently, “Tears turned inward become bullets.”

Because my son died when his wife was two months pregnant with their first child, I have a special interest in childhood grief. I watch my grandson, David Michael, struggle to understand why he doesn’t have a dad like everyone else does. I still struggle with that myself, but feel compelled to find answers to share with him. As part of my journey, I began reading books and attending seminars on children’s grief and related topics. When I was asked to tell stories at a local bereaved children’s camp, I saw an opportunity to put my knowledge of how stories heal together with an important need of children. In the process, I have learned a lot about helping children to deal with loss through stories.

Camp Healing Powers is a bereaved children’s camp sponsored by The Foundation for Caring at Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, which is located in Jacksonville, Florida. Since the camp started in 1997, the number of camp weekends during the year has grown from two to four because the number of requests for children to attend increases each year. The camp is funded entirely by community support and private donations and is available to bereaved children between the ages of 6 and 16. Each camper can attend camp only once and is screened by qualified social workers before being accepted. Each session can accommodate 32 campers and the workers are hospice social workers and trained volunteers. After the evening meal on Friday, the camp director talks to campers openly about why they are at camp. She says, “All of you are here because someone you love has died and therefore we want to be kind to everyone this weekend. All of the workers are volunteering their time to be here because they love kids.” This immediately establishes a community of comfort and caring, as the campers understand that they are with others who have had a similar experience. This bonding situation is well documented as providing mutual aid to those in the group since they feel connected to each other.

When I was asked to tell stories at the camp, they had never had a storyteller before. The director and I talked about the stories to tell and I suggested telling a mixture of entertaining stories with tales that dealt with grief and loss. The first time I told stories for Camp Healing Powers, I followed the “therapy dogs.” I should have known better because I’ve always heard you should never follow children or an animal act when performing. But the camp director thought it would be fine. Fortunately, she was right. After a lot of thought, I decided to begin by telling “Why the Dog Chases the Cat,” a good transition from a room full of gentle, adorable dogs to story time. The kids loved it and all joined in as the dog growled “our ham, our ham, oouurrr ham!” Following that, I told “Nadia the Willful” by Sue Alexander, which I tell with the author’s permission. This story is about a little girl whose favorite brother dies and her father forbids everyone mentioning his name ever again. Nadia complies with her father’s wishes for a while, but then begins to talk of her brother and discovers that her pain and grief improve as she is able to remember her brother more easily. When Nadia’s father hears one of the shepherd boys talking about Hamed, he banishes the young shepherd from the oasis. Nadia confronts her father by asking, “Can you recall Hamed’s face? Can you still hear his voice?” As her father begins to weep, Nadia tells stories of her brother-both happy and sad. Finally her father understands that Nadia has given him back his son. The story ends, “And Hamed lived again-in the hearts of all who remembered him.”

At this point I pause for the story to sink in, and then  say, “I know it is important to keep those we love alive by telling stories about them. The reason I know this works is because I have a grandson whose father died before David Michael was born. So David Michael never saw his father. But since his father was my son’ I know a lot of stories about his Daddy David. I tell these stories to David Michael every time we are together and they help him to know his father, even though he never saw him.”

I continue, “One summer when David Michael was visiting me, he found some money lying on the street and I told him that when his Daddy David was a little boy, he found money everywhere he went – and I don’t mean just pennies. He found dimes and quarters and sometime even dollars. He found several wallets and when they had a name in them, we’d call the person to tell them we had the wallet.  Sometimes they’d give Daddy David a reward for being so honest. Sometimes we couldn’t find the owner of the wallet, so he just kept all of the money.

“Several months later, David Michael called me one Saturday morning’ so excited he could hardly speak, and shouted, ‘Granmama! I am like my Daddy David – I just found $10 in the Home Depot parking lot.’ I told him I always knew he was like his daddy and said, ‘Here’s another tip: Your daddy never passed a Coke machine or a pay telephone without looking in the coin return. You won’t believe how often people leave change there. So be sure to check those out too.’ And he said he would. What an awesome thing for David Michael to feel a connection to his father because of the simple story of finding money. I tell him all the stories, both good and bad, because I want him to know that Daddy David was a real person who did things just like all of us do.”

After that the children usually want to tell me ways they are like their deceased parent or sibling or to share a memory of some sort. Then I close the time by telling another story like “There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon” by Jack Kent, which I tell in first person, as a 5-year- old boy who finds a dragon in his room. Because the dragon is ignored, it grows really big. It only returns to the size of a kitten when Billy Bixby pays attention and pets it. I ask why they think the dragon got so big and get all sorts of answers. Someone always says it was because the dragon just wanted to be noticed. I sometimes tell “The Wide Mouth Frog” and that works well to draw the children into the tale and lighten the mood as the frog asks the kids “Who are you and what do you like to eat.” Last camp, I told “The Singing Tortoise,” which led to a discussion of how kids teased my 9- year-old daughter after her daddy died years ago. I asked, “Has that ever happened to any of you?” After they told me about similar experiences, we talked about how people sometimes say hurtful things and how we should tell them they are being cruel.

The children are always affectionate and appreciative after I finish the stories. One evening a little girl came up to me with tears streaming down her face and said, “That story you told made me really sad.” I asked her which story and she said the one about the little girl whose brother died. Then she said, “You know why it made me sad?” and I said, “Why did it?” She said, “Because my brother died.” Tears were still streaming down. I gave her a hug and replied, “Honey, I’m so sorry your brother died and I know you must really miss him.” And then, in almost the next breath, the tears disappeared and she said, “Could you show me how to make that wide mouth frog?” As William Worden says in his book Children and Grief, children’s grief can be very intense but it is also short-lived. She needed to express her grief, but once it was acknowledged and validated, she was ready to move on to something else.

During the day on Saturday, the children do several art projects that allow them to express their grief and their feelings for the person that has died. They make shields with significant things about their family in the different sections. I help them make journals and dream catchers and tell “The Legend of the Dreamcatcher” while they work. We talk about dreams and how they can connect us to our loved ones. There’s also plenty of time for playing games and having fun.

The counselors who spend the night in the cabins with the campers have told me at every session that the stories provide wonderful discussions back in the cabins before they go to sleep. They confirm that the children really seem to grasp the importance of telling stories about their loved ones. Since the children only attend one session, I can tell the same stories every camp. I do vary them depending on the predominant age of the camper, so the counselors hear different ones. They give me feedback about the ones that seem to work the best. A story I plan to use at a future camp is “Tara and Magic Sack” by Bill Harley, with his permission. In this wonderful story Tara tries to make her father happy after her mother’s death by using something magic that belonged to her mother. Problems result, but at the end father and daughter realize the love they have for each other and treasure the gifts they still have from Tara’s mother. When I played a tape of this story for David Michael, he wanted to hear it over and over. When I asked him why he liked the story, he said because Tara and her father learned to love each other and use the magic that belonged to her mother. A powerful observation for a 6-year old.

Each time I tell stories at the camp, I’ve experimented by interacting with the children following the stories, in an effort to bring out their thoughts and feelings. The first time, I just told the stories and let the kids respond in their own ways. The next few times I added personal comments about how I knew that telling stories about people who had died kept them alive in our hearts. At the last camp, I told them that I had talked to Sue Alexander, the author of Nadia the Willful, and she had told me why she wrote the story. I asked them to think about why she might have written it, and tell me at the end of the story. When I finished the story, hands were waving. One of the children answered, “I think she wanted us to know how we could keep people who have died alive in our hearts and our minds.” I said, “That’s right, she did. But there’s another reason.” A little girl raised her hand and said, “I think she might have written it because her brother died and she wanted to talk about that.” And I said, “You are exactly right. Her brother did die and her father refused to let anyone mention his name. So, Ms. Alexander wrote the story to deal with her own frustration of not being able to talk about her brother. She also hoped that if her father read her story, maybe he would see the importance of sharing memories and stories of his son. And guess what? He did.”

I will continue to explore stories and ways to use them with the children at Camp Healing Powers and with David Michael. The looks on their faces tell me I’m on the right track. I received a note from one of the social workers after the last camp. She said, “Thank you so much for the time and energy you put into making Camp Healing Powers a success! Your storytelling is an amazing gift to the children. We appreciate you.”

The gifts I have received are pretty amazing too. I treasure and nurture them and have continued to learn and grow and heal from my experiences with the children, which enables me to be an important part in my grandson’s development. I believe a gift I have is meeting a vital need in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that. And so I say to you, “Remember the children.”

References

Alexander, Sue. Nadia the Willful. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1983.

Heavilin, Marilyn Willet and Heavilin, Matthew Warren. Grief is a Family Affair. Menifee, CA: The Proverbial Solution, 2000.

International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. “Children, Adolescents, and Death: Myths, Realities, and Challenges.” Death Studies: Volume 23, 1999.

Rofes, Eric E. The Kid’s Book about Death and Dying by and for kids. New York: Little Brown, and Co., 1985.

Vernon, Ann. “Experiencing Loss: Practical Guidelines for Group Counseling.” Counseling and Human Development: Volume 34, Number 8, April 2002.

Worden, J. William. Children and Grief. New York: Guilford, 1996.


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Diane Rooks has an M.Ed, in storytelling and is author of the book Spinning Gold out of Straw: How Stories Heal. She is secretary and resource coordinator for H SA and is a certified bereavement facilitator. Diane works with hospice, The Compassionate Friends, bereaved children and others to help people deal with loss and transition through the use of stories. She leads storytelling workshops throughout the country and is an inspiring speaker, teacher and coach. Her presentations are filled with stories from other cultures, personal experiences and history.

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