When children grieve

Relationships have certainly changed since I was a kid. I remember being in Jr. High and asking a girl if she would “go with me”. Then you would hang out, hold hands and if you dared you would kiss. Since we didn’t have smartphones, texting wasn’t invented but if it existed I am sure we would have used it. Instead we passed notes. We would fold them into these triangle shaped footballs and shoot them over to our new found loved ones.

Remember “pen pals”? I never had one, but from what I am told people would write to complete strangers matched up by an intermediary somewhere else in the world. Smartphones, Skype and Instagram has changed all that, theoretically bringing us all closer together. Pen pals have morphed into “text pals”. But are we really closer?

Can you have a relationship and not spend much time physically or even face to face with a person? I thought it was impossible until I saw it happen to my 12-year old son. Last summer he met a girl that actually paid attention to him. He saw two girls on a bus during summer camp as they were headed on one of their field trips. The girl he initially talked to gave him the brush off and said something like “what are you looking at”? Her friend smiled at him.

He hated going to this summer camp but this one particular girl would laugh at his jokes and was just patient enough to overcome his anti-social youthfulness. After camp they became instant “text pals”. They would stay in constant communication with each other both through private text messages and on Instagram. They shared photos and feelings on what was happening in their separate lives, but in an odd way they were connected. They had a bond that is hard for a forty-something to comprehend.

It was nearing summer break again this year and my son was adamant that he was not going to return to this one particular camp. Until he received a text from his text pal about the camp, he agreed to go, they decided upon the date and it was settled. At last, they would once again see each other in person and not merely through an electronic medium.

It was Monday night, and my son was texting his friend simple things like “how was your day?”, “so excited about camp”, etc, etc. He would say things like “luv u, as a friend” and she would write back, “LOL ik” (“i know)”. This is how their digital banter would go. Shortly after this exchange my son’s friend had a massive stroke. She was rushed to the hospital where she was moderately stabilized but then sent to a children’s hospital that deals with this type of trauma. She was in a coma, barely hanging on to life.

My son found out from my wife and was obviously sad, but hopeful. Lots of banter went back and forth both in text messages and on Instagram about the condition of his friend. Everyone was providing prayers and hope. My son was called out as someone who didn’t know her because he went to a different school and was one year younger. He was somewhat hurt by this but continued to give his support through this digital means of love and affection.

My son kept his phone in his room that night hoping to get some news. He texted her saying that if you get this and respond I know you are Ok. She died that night on May 22nd. He found out from a classmate at school the next day. He was devastated. He vacillated between crying intensely to being in deep thought about it, to forgetting about it and being a kid again. Then the cycle would start all over again. He had lots of questions for us; how many people do you know who have died? Did you know any one who died when you were a kid? Tough questions and big emotions to rationalize for a 12-year old.

His friend wrote 40 factors about herself on Instagram. One of the things she said is “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up”. Tonight my son said solemnly that she won’t get the chance to find out.

How do you help a child who has lost someone special to them? My mom, who is a psychotherapist, is trained in crisis management. She deals with family crisis situations frequently. She said that one of the first things kids think about is “will this happen to me”? It is so rare for a child to die, especially from a stroke. It is so sudden, so unexpected. Children must be comforted, especially at night and given reassurances that they are Ok.

The second thing that helps is having the child express their feelings through art, music and writing. Have them paint or draw a picture depicting a fun experience they had with the person that passed away. If they are capable have them compose a song or write a blog post or poem about memories they have about that person or how they are feeling.

Raising a child is hard. Dealing with trauma or emotional stress makes it even harder. For us, dealing with the situation openly and honestly seems to be the best way to handle the it. When you feel like crying cry, if the child wants to talk be ready to listen. But continue to support them and remind them that they will be Ok.

Brandon and Hazel