Yesterday my niece posted a photo of her eight year old daughter lying in bed grieving over the death of a special little kitten. The image was heartbreaking because it illustrated the depth of the little girl’s feelings. She was so obviously bereft. Her mother sweetly acknowledge the youngster’s emotions, noting that the child was only eight but appeared to have the sensitivity of someone far older. Because my niece is a wise and excellent mother she was more than prepared to acknowledge and deal with her child’s sorrow. I have little doubt that the beautiful child will be able to work out her feelings under the loving guidance of her mom.
Sometimes we adults tend to believe that there is a sliding scale of human emotions running from one to ten with ten being the most powerful. We assume that children’s feelings lie somewhere along the lower end and that only adults are capable of feeling the full force of sorrow. The truth is that children are just as likely to endure the maximum impact of difficult situations as older individuals but they don’t always know how to understand or even express their pain. Quite often they either act out in ways that appear naughty or they withdraw into a world of confusion. Unless an adult recognizes that their behavior is a sign of inner turmoil, they may end up repressing thoughts and feelings that need to be expressed.
Like the my niece’s little girl I was only eight when I experienced a great loss, the death of my father. There was a swirl of activity around me as friends and family gathered to console my mother. She was, of course, quite bereft and almost incapable of functioning. She was in a state of shock for days and only managed to pull herself together because she was determined to care for me and my brothers. She was above all a loving mother. Unfortunately almost all of the well intentioned adults seemed to believe that I was far too young to even comprehend the magnitude of what had happened much less have strong feelings. When they came to help my mama they shooed me outside to play. They thought that I needed distractions from the whispering and crying that was unfolding inside the house. Their intentions were good. They truly believed that they were protecting me from the harsh realities. They did not realize how much I needed to be part of the grieving process.
I was feeling tortured and confused. I desperately wanted more than anything to talk about what had happened to our family. I spent my days barely holding together with an act that convinced everyone that I was totally oblivious. At night when I believed that nobody was listening I cried myself to sleep. My thoughts were so unresolved that for a time my personality changed. I became fearful and hyper-responsible. I somehow felt that it was up to me to be a very good girl for my mother’s sake, even as I wanted to scream and act out.
I suppose that it was natural for the grownups caring for me to think that my lack of response to my father’s death was proof that I was too young to have a concept of what was happening. They were probably even relieved that I appeared to be so passive and unconcerned. The reality was that I was in dire need of counseling but nobody ever picked up on that fact. I dealt with the terror inside my head on my own, sometimes convinced that something was wrong with me.
Over time I reflected on my situation and my personal feelings and I was able to self-heal. Reading and observing led me to understand and console myself. I eventually overcame the poisons that stayed so long in my mind but I suspect that I have a few more scars than I might have had I been given the opportunity to talk with a kind and caring adult who was willing to value my emotions and assure me that I was normal.
I suspect that my life-long love of working with troubled children has been a way of coping with my own inner demons. I have found that all that little lost souls sometimes need is someone willing to listen to them with respect. Our understanding of the human mind has evolved even in my lifetime. We now realize that children are as emotionally complex as adults and that in times of trauma they require the kind of gentle and loving care that my niece has afforded her little girl. We no longer underestimate the powerful emotions elicited by loss. We have come to realize that each of us no matter the age reacts to tragedy and trauma in ways that must be addressed and honored.
Most schools today are staffed with counselors and observant teachers who watch for signs from their students that something is amiss. Modern day parents talk openly with their little ones and have age appropriate discussions about the life and death situations that affect them. Children are generally allowed to express themselves in quiet and safe conversations.
We have come a very long way in understanding the human psyche but there are still terrible problems in our society. The young man who began a shooting spree here in Houston over the weekend had served in Afghanistan. Family members said that he had come to believe that society was about to collapse. I have little doubt that what he had done and seen in war had somehow broken him. There is no telling what was going through his mind. The sad truth is that our veterans are suffering in particular. Each day there are far too many of them committing suicide or considering acts of violence. We have let many of them down by neglecting to help them to deal with the stress and the terror that they have endured. All too often we send them back home to deal with the upheaval inside their minds without the assistance that they need.
There has been a worldwide argument over whether or not the gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo should have been killed but I haven’t heard anyone mention the needs of the young child who created the furor. He may not be able to express what this event did to him but I can almost guarantee that its impact will be dramatic. I have known children who were subjected to horrific abuse when they were infants and toddlers. They were unable to recall the details but somehow felt the enormity of the pain well into their teenage years. Their anger and confusion often expressed itself in outbursts, sexual promiscuity, depression and violence. They had been damaged and nobody had taken the time to help them properly heal simply because it was thought that they would not remember what had happened to them.
We must love, cherish and protect anyone who endures tragedy. Without the proper unpacking of the varied thoughts and emotions that result from harm or loss, repressed feelings may lead to horrible consequences. It is right and good to understand that even the smallest among us need understanding and the opportunity to express themselves. It is not up to us to judge the way that people react to life’s experiences but to allow them to honestly express the emotions filling their heads. Sometimes all we need do is acknowledge how beautiful and sensitive they are. We need to check on them as they progress through the stages of recovery. We must let them know that it is not just okay but quite normal to grieve or be angry. Mostly we need to love them.