So, let’s talk for a minute about kids from hard places dealing with death. Clearly, any child in foster care has experienced loss…simply by virtue of the fact that he is no longer with his biological family. The removal, in and of itself, is a loss and it is traumatic, even if the situation was not healthy or safe.
The difference is that for a placement in care the loss is usually that of a person who is still living. Ugh…let that sink in.
So, because of this, death is potentially super tricky to navigate because it is another loss for a child who has already experienced great loss. What I encourage you to keep in mind is that not only can the death bring grief from this loss itself, it can additionally become a trigger…a reminder of all the other loss he has endured in his lifetime. That said, grief over a death is obviously different from grief over the loss of people who are still living. But it is grief all the same. And by virtue of the fact that children in foster care, or those who have been adopted, have “two families,” it exponentially increases the odds for the child to experience a death and loss.
Stating the obvious here, but it might be biological family, it might be the foster or adoptive family, or a family friend. But a death will come at some point and how you address it and handle it will impact how the child is able to navigate.
While my son was in foster care, this was never an issue for us. He was two at the time of adoption and prior to that we’ve had one family funeral, which occurred while he was an infant. But we were in new waters a few months ago when I had to tell him about the death of one of our neighbors.
She had been battling cancer for a year and a half, and he saw the changes in her (the bald head was his biggest clue, of course), but he wasn’t entirely certain what was happening. I tried, at that point, to keep things as vague as I could, and only answering the questions he had; we talked about cancer and that sometimes it made people really sick and sometimes die. But that just because someone had cancer didn’t mean that they WOULD die.
A few weeks before it happened, I knew it was coming. But I did not prepare him. I didn’t know what to do or say and so I just didn’t; in hindsight, probably not the best approach. He was not terribly close to her, but since she did live across the street, they would often see each other and wave. Knowing of his special diet restrictions, she would always buy him a big bag of special candy at Halloween. And she kept on hand a supply of special suckers just for him when he would come over and ring her bell and ask for one. So, though they were not close, he had a special place in her heart, and she in his.
When I told him that she died, his first reaction was kind of nonchalant. But once I learned of the funeral arrangements and the visitation, and I began prepping him for that, he became angrier; I knew he’d been processing it but I was having trouble getting him to verbalize his feelings (that’s not his strong suit anyway, and grief wasn’t doing him any favors). As we talked, I was able to draw out of him that he was mad because she had been out of suckers for a while…I knew it was because she was sick and that buying special suckers was definitely not a priority.
But to him it was important and was the way they’d connected…and in his mind, she had clearly let him down. He brought it up several times over the next couple days until I was able to get him to understand that she had been sick, and that she wanted to get suckers for him but just couldn’t go to the store because she was too sick. At that point he softened, and did not mention it again.
When I told him we were going to go to a visitation, before the funeral (we did not attend the funeral itself…I realized that I’d been given the opportunity to take baby steps with him on this so I was going to do just that). I explained what that was, but he was adamant he did not really want to go. Most of that response, I suspect, was because he always like to be “in the know” and just because I explain what will happen, it doesn’t always translate into him “knowing/understanding/envisioning” what will truly take place and his anxiety takes over.
But after several conversations about what it would be like, and after I explained that there would be lots of pictures to look at, and that her husband and daughters would be there, he finally agreed to go.
Understandably, he did not want to go through the line, and I did not make him. He wanted to look at the pictures, and he wanted to sit on the sofa that was as close to the casket as he could get, but still several feet away.
And then he took it all in.
He watched the people, he looked at the flowers, he asked many questions, such as, when pointing to the casket, “Are they going to close that hatch when they bury it?”
Fortunately, that was not loud enough for anyone else to hear, but when you’re new to death and all the formalities and rituals that we have, you’re probably going to have questions. I knew that this was just preparing him for a closer-to-home experience with death, such as someone in the family or someone he knew well.
And then it was on the way home that the flood of questions really came. Our family, personally, believes in Heaven and so he had many questions about how our neighbor could be “lying in that box and be in Heaven at the same time.”
But the thing that seemed most obvious to me, as he was asking questions was this: Are YOU going to die someday, Mommy? Are YOU going to leave me forever?”
And that, my friends, was the most difficult thing for both of us to get past.
For a child who has experienced great hurt and loss and has fought for the attachments he has…even the anxious attachment style he has…the thought of losing his family was enough to undue us both. Needless to say, the tears were flowing in the car that afternoon.
But, as he tends to do, he has not mentioned her or anyone’s death since that day. I know it’s still rolling around in his head…as we see the neighbors, and the new puppy they got to try to find some joy in their lives…but he never mentions her death.
He is “in his own head” a lot about things, and over the 7 years he’s been with us, we are still not always able to draw him out.
I have tried to “bait” him by asking if he’s thinking about anyone or if he has questions about things he wants to ask or discuss. But the answer is always no.
So, as I wait for him to be ready to fully process this…and I know the time will come at some point…I stand ready to pick up the pieces. Be it the processing of her death or someone else’s…death always comes and at some point, it will be very close. And he will have to fully process all of it.
For a child from hard places, processing of death and loss may look different than someone who has not experienced severe trauma. And that’s ok…so long as we, the parents, the supporters, the caregivers know and understand that…and give time, space and margin to the child. And just be ready when he is.