As a psychiatrist, I work with people every day who are grieving. One would think that would make me an expert. In fact, just the opposite. I have learned that each individual needs me to approach them with beginner’s eyes, curious about his or her experience, rather than as an expert. And indeed, I cannot know it or predict it. Grieving is a shape shifting, living and breathing entity. Grieving is not a straight line. It is not even a journey or a climb or a spiral. Grieving is a unique and deeply personal process, specific to the individual doing the grieving, and their relationship to the person being grieved.
My role is simply to serve as a witness, and to walk alongside those struggling with loss, or the anticipation of loss. Because I work mostly with adults, my patients can usually use their words to express their deep sadness, confusion, anger, guilt, denial, fear, relief, and all the other complex emotions that come along for the ride. For children, however, grieving can be an even more challenging process. Children, depending on their chronological age, their stage of development, their support systems, and their relationships to their parents or siblings, can feel and express their emotions in entirely different ways than adults. They may or may not have words. They may internalize or act out. The process of grieving for children can be long, and can impact them far into the future.
Professionals such as psychiatrists and therapists may indeed play an important role in supporting children who have parents who are ill, dying, or have died. But the role of a mentor, someone who has been through a similar struggle of their own, cannot be underestimated. Mentors can provide understanding, companionship, and support. They can hold a safe space in which a child can cry, laugh, or both. They can talk or not talk. Mentors can provide fun and relaxing outlets that provide both children and parents a break from the intense emotional work of grieving. These are roles that a mental health professional may not necessarily be able to occupy, given the usual need for professional boundaries.
Sometimes we cannot prevent our children from experiencing trauma, although we do our best. What we can do is provide a supportive and compassionate framework to hold them while working through their traumas and losses as they grow and live. It can take a village to provide that, and each member of the village contributes something unique and important. And in the village of grief, the value of a mentor can never be underestimated.
*Monisha Vasa is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and she was kind enough to write a guest blog piece for us regarding children and grief. Her practice is the Mindful Healing Center