Guiding Children Through Grief

"Obliterative." It's the best description Natalie Norton of Laie, Hawaii, has heard of what grief is like.

In January 2010, after suffering from whooping cough for less than a month, Norton's infant son, Gavin, passed away. She held Gavin in her arms at the hospital as her husband, Richard, placed his hand over his son's heart, feeling its last beat.

"We imagine (grief) will be difficult, we imagine it will be challenging and unfamiliar and lonely, but we don't imagine that it will be, in the words of Joan Didion, 'obliterative,' " she said.

Almost as horrifying, she said, was when she and Richard had to tell their three other sons that their brother was not coming home.

Walking children through the stages of grief is a challenge many parents have never faced and one they may not have the tools to tackle.

As the children of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, returned to school last week after the deaths of 20 of their classmates and six of the school's staff, the school year may be back on track, but things are hardly back to normal.

For children, finding concrete ways to remember the person they've lost and vocalize their grief can be therapeutic, said psychologist and trauma specialist Therese Rando. "There are literally 43 separate sets of factors that combine to determine how a person mourns."

Memorializing lost loved ones can help them move forward in the process.

Traumatic deaths like those in Newtown can further complicate mourning.

"The essence of trauma is powerlessness," Rando said. Survivors are left many questions: "What can I count on?" "Who am I in the absence of my loved one?"

One question parents should ask is how they can empower their children to speak about traumatic events and remember the person they lost. The Nortons encourage their boys to speak openly about their baby brother.

"When people ask us how many children we have," Richard Norton said, "it's easier to just say three. But our sons will say, 'There's four; Gavin died.'

"It's important to them."

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Ann Hoevel
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