Saturday, August 8, 2015

Helping Your Children Grieve

The death of a family member is often a confusing, even frightening time for children. For some it is their first experience of the death of a loved one. A child's first exposure to death is often accompanied by a period of moodiness and instability while the child struggles to integrate the awareness that loved ones do in fact die. It is important for the parent/child relationship to serve as a sanctuary for the child, where he or she can explore and integrate this new awareness.

Suggestions for Parents

         Communicate with your child about death and grief, being as honest and straightforward as your child can understand. Take the time to answer your child’s questions, acknowledging what you don’t know. Also, remember that children tend to interpret things literally. For example, if you tell him that his grandmother is “sleeping forever” or is “taking a long trip”, he might assume that if he goes to sleep he too might sleep forever or that grandmother will return from her trip.
         Take your child’s developmental stage into account; you child will not grieve as an adult does. Children do not have the same capacity as adults to tolerate intense pain over a period of time; they will grieve in spurts, and may even postpone deep grieving until a later stage of development.
         Share with your child what to expect if she visits a dying family member. If your child doesn’t want to go, honor her decision. Explore other ways your child can communicate with that family member—for example, talking through her heart, guided imagery, drawing a picture or writing a letter.
         Give your child encouragement to grieve and prepare him for what he might experience while grieving—that he might feel sad or unhappy for awhile. Invite him to share his feelings and questions with you and help him to express his feelings in ways that are natural and safe for him, utilizing play and the imagination.
         Include your child in funerals and memorials; it is her right to be included. Attempts to protect your child from death and grief can have long lasting negative effects. However, don’t force a child to go to a funeral if they don’t want to. And honor her refusal to participate in any part of the ceremony—she may not, for example, want to look inside the casket or kiss the dead person.
         Attend to your own grieving. Your modeling of healthy grieving is more important than you realize. Show your child how you are taking care of yourself in your grief. Your child might want to help you create an altar for the sanctuary and, if she sees you using it regularly, might choose to use that herself from time to time.

Excerpted from The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss (Beyond Words) 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Healing a Broken Heart

Healing a Broken Heart

EVERY ONE OF US WILL go through many losses in the course of our lives.
Some of these losses will break our hearts — the loss of a partner, a child, a close friend, a parent or sibling or grandparent, a lover, a cherished pet.
The pain of a broken heart is excruciating, both emotionally and physically. Our hearts literally hurt. In response, most people try to avoid that pain by keeping busy or burying the pain in alcohol. The culture offers a lot of distractions for avoiding pain.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve worked with many clients who came to therapy after months or years of trying to avoid the pain of their broken hearts. At a certain point the powerful force of grief caught up with them. They ran out of energy; some collapsed physically and emotionally.
The key to healing a broken heart is to learn how to grieve fully without feeling overwhelmed. I suggest to my clients that they create a sanctuary, a sacred place of healing where they can turn toward the grief in a safe contained space for a limited time each day — 10-20 minutes. This might be a corner of your bedroom or a room in the house where you will not be disturbed.
Set up a small altar dedicated to the loved one you are grieving with a picture or objects that remind you of them. As you sit in the sanctuary and turn toward your grief, see this as an invitation to gently and slowly open your heart again, to allow the feelings to move through you without interfering. Let your heart speak. There is a powerful wisdom in grief. It knows what you need to heal. What healing is generated when life can flow through us without resistance! The sanctuary is the place you dedicate to showing up for your grief just as it is, feeling the full impact of that loss.
At the end of that brief time in the sanctuary, you get up and return to your daily life. You shift your attention away from your grief, reminding yourself you will be in the sanctuary again the next day. This turning toward your grief for short contained times each day and then shifting the focus back to your daily life builds confidence in the grieving process. This confidence allows you to go deep enough to heal. You can read more about creating and using the sanctuary in my book “Honoring Grief.”

You have an ongoing relationship with your lost loved one.
In the sanctuary you can access the ongoing inner relationship with your deceased loved one. That relationship continues to unfold after death. You can talk to your loved one, write a letter, close your eyes and meet them in a special place in your imagination. This is an opportunity to heal regrets and old wounds, explore unresolved issues, express your love, nurture your connection within. All of this can help heal your broken heart. Once you have explored this relationship, you know that your loved one lives on within you, right here in your heart. Be kind, gentle, patient and compassionate with yourself. It takes time for a broken heart to heal.
As your heart opens in that safe container of the sanctuary, you’ll feel more vulnerable but also more alive. Protect yourself in your daily life. Try not to put yourself in situations or relationships where you close down again. Pay attention to what your heart is communicating to you .
With each visit to the sanctuary, we deepen into our grief, nurture our ongoing inner relationship with our lost loved one, and let the feelings flow. Our hearts respond by feeling lighter and more spacious in our chests. There is space to love again; this is a sure sign that our broken hearts are healing. We know we will undergo more losses, but now we have the confidence that we can grieve without feeling overwhelmed and that we can heal.
Alexandra Kennedy MA MFT is an author and a psychotherapist in private practice in Santa Cruz. For more info, visit