Notes from the Children
“Pain that is not transformed, is transferred.”
~ Richard Rohr
2014~The death of our Kevin claimed not only the life of our son, but also the life of our family. Our vibrant family of four that played together, laughed together, and loved together became a family of three, in an instant. We became a family in crises and we began living the “nightmare”.
In the years after Kevin’s death, we experienced a warped sense of reality, blindly navigating through those vulnerable times. We questioned our decision-making abilities about our careers, finances, bills, illnesses, health issues, holidays, purchases, social engagements and raising our children.
We discovered again and again that the term, “stages of grief” was a misnomer! There were no stages of designated grief, just excruciating moments of vulnerability and loss.
Our worst nightmare had come true and we were living it –experiencing extreme emotions like shock, disillusionment, abandonment, fear, anger, rage, guilt, longing, despair, and sadness, in no particular order. We became physically ill, suffering from insomnia, listlessness, uncontrollable shaking, stomach distress, flu-like symptoms, surgeries and accidental injuries. Our mental state deteriorated and we suffered from memory loss, inattention, confusion and lack of concentration. Our productivity suffered at work and school. There were timely decisions to make but we were ill equipped to make them. Humiliated and embarrassed, we relied on others to pick up the slack. Thrust into the legal world, that included doctors, coroners, police, lawyers, and the court system, we were forced to learn their language.
Likewise, despite everything I learned from my dream world, I still questioned the unfairness of God’s lack of intervention when we had “done all the right things”. We had not yet integrated the amazing insights or gained enough perspective. We pleaded and bargained with hope that God would grant us a miracle. Our belief system crumbled around us and we plunged into a spiritual crisis.
These crises issues were not unique to my family. Many of these issues are typical of families who have experienced the death of a loved one, abuse, and other traumatic life-altering events. The word crisis literally means “a decisive moment” and is defined as such: “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.”
In our society, the acceptable path during a crisis is to flee from vulnerability to protection, rather than “be” with it to enter into the mystery and seek understanding, reconciliation, solutions, and personal growth. Addressing the cultural and spiritual needs of families in crises can only encourage and enhance healing. It isn’t about “treating” or diagnosing the care receiver, it’s about companioning them as they discover a holistic way of grieving. It is a “decisive moment” that can make or break the journey and grieving children are alone and unskilled to do so.
How can we as caregivers, facilitators, counselors, therapists, and parents companion children and their families as they grieve traumatic losses? First, we recognize that families in crises need assistance that supports the entire family –addressing bereavement issues from a holistic perspective, where caregivers understand the psycho-social, physiological, economic, cultural, and spiritual dynamics within the family. During the time of our crises in the 90’s, the perception seemed to be that the children were flexible enough to deal with loss issues without intervention or assistance. “No worries –they’ll get over it! They just need to get back to school and be with their friends and play! No need to drudge up all that sadness.”
Thankfully, today there is a greater awareness about children’s grief in the wake of the numerous and tragic school shootings in the past two decades. We now know that they experience the same feelings and issues as adults. It just looks different. Often, a child’s grief is confused with normal developmental stages of growth. However, I also sense that society has hit the panic button with an expectation that sounds like this: “now that we know this grief stuff needs our attention, bereaved children should be able to get over it in three counseling sessions and still make it to soccer practice!”
For those of us who are doing the depth work, this perception is incongruous. We must recognize that healing is a life-long process. Reconciliation occurs on many levels, at a varying intensity, at unscheduled times, and only when the griever is ready. The most important thing for a grieving child to know is that they are supported and loved, and that they will be heard. The most common mistake we as adults make is to talk instead of listen. We are so focused on alleviating the pain, that in our talking, we actually rob the young griever of the opportunity to witness their inner world and express the unspeakable.
I believe we all need and appreciate someone to be with us in that vulnerable place, a brave companion to go deep and go the distance. Seasoned grievers must avoid the rush to heal the newly bereaved and circumvent the process for the griever. It takes courage to companion a grieving person because most likely we will see a remnant of our story in their story. And, if our story is unexamined, we risk projecting our issues and agendas on them –judging the griever’s pain to mask our own. As caregivers, we can assist the children best by first looking at our own grief and loss experiences. We must look at our perceptions about, death, loss, and grief and our biases about the healing tools that we find unacceptable or uncomfortable to work with, and in doing so we can work toward reconciling our own loss issues. We will be more present to a young grievers needs and less focused on our fears. We can be a conscious caregiver for a child who might be alone on his/her journey because the family is not ready or cannot do their grief work. Often times, the innocent children are the catalyst for the healing.
I first recognized the power of sharing our dreams, and our grief, when Stann and I spoke to a youth group at our Catholic church for a Confirmation retreat in 1994. Speaking together for the first time, we shared the risks we took in processing our grief, walking our faith, and living again. Later, inspired by a dream I had about the retreat, I realized our daughter, Amber, and other grieving children also needed a safe place to share their grief stories as well. I presented the idea to our parish priest and a core group of close friends who were also therapists, and their response was enthusiastic and supportive. I coordinated a local chapter of Rainbows, a national organization for children’s grief support, in our town for the next three years. It was a powerful experience and our volunteer group served many grieving children. Amber was in the first group, and as a seventh grader, remembers feeling resentful that we were making her go to a support group!
Amber says: “At first, I remember being really annoyed that you would make me go. Once I saw that there were other kids in the group that I went to school with, and they were experiencing some of the same things, I felt better. When we were there we were able to talk about things on a "kid" level and it was nice. Erik (our facilitator) was great, he had an awesome way of making us feel comfortable and allowed us to share (or not). I am sure we talked about confidentiality during our group, but I think that all of us were able to respect that outside of the group. I never felt like anybody broke that.”
I grieved deeply for the children who experienced Kevin’s death. His sister, cousins and friends felt a void that no playmate could fill. It was painful to watch their social interactions but I felt too overwhelmed by my own daughter’s needs to presume what the other children needed. I knew on some level that Amber would act out any unresolved grief at some point. Nearing adolescence, her needs, questions, and fears were different then at eight years of age.
I invited several of the parents who were still living nearby to consider the children’s grief group for their own children. None of them pursued it. Some felt that too much time had passed. Why bring it up again? Others preferred to manage it privately at home or at church. I was disappointed but I knew it was ultimately up to each family to address Kevin’s death from their own beliefs, perceptions, and religious affiliations.
Even so, I wanted the children to know that tears, sadness, confusion and anger are a normal response when a loved one has died. Remembering Kevin and talking about what happened was never off limits with me. I wanted to know how much they understood or accepted and I worried about how this would affect the children later.
In the first year, there was a spontaneous dialogue and compelling artwork. Amber, Kyle, Dillon, Mitchell, and Kevin’s preschool class expressed their inner world in drawings and artwork, illustrating the mournful process of coming to terms with the permanence of death. For the youngest children, drawing was their only means of communicating the intuitive language they understood, just as it was for Kevin. I cherished their artwork and letters that gave me a glimpse of their inner world. It was an honor to be the recipient of such gifts.
Eventually, for many parents, the subject of their child’s grief was replaced with reports of the family, sports, and school activities. For our family, Amber’s grief remained front and center, sometimes obliterating the normal achievements and highlights of her childhood. I never stopped the dialogue with Amber –sometimes to a fault. I admit that during her adolescence I might have gone overboard in processing. I feared she would become unconscious and bury the pain, and we would lose her too, in a different way. It was a tenuous time never knowing just how much information and details to offer in answer to her questions.
My desire to companion Amber and provide resources for other grieving children was genuine but there was an underlying responsibility as well. As I began to accept the concept that Kevin’s death was not accidental and his transition intentional, I struggled with an intense guilt over being a willing participant of a divine plan that would cause so much pain and suffering for my daughter and my husband. I so strongly identified with the archetype of the perfect mother that I mistakenly assumed sole responsibility for their pain and I believed it was up to me to ease their suffering.
As I matured spiritually, I realized each of us had made our own agreements, and that Amber had participated as well. We were in this together and we would learn from one another. Our parallel paths crossed often, and as she grieved, I grieved, embracing both my daughter, and my own grieving inner child. Amber actually became my greatest teacher, modeling the goodness of humanity, the resilience of the human spirit, and the blessing of forgiveness. Amber reminded me there was meaning and purpose in my life, and it all stemmed from her.
In the beginning, I needed to find a way to ease my guilt. I found the courage to join a support group for bereaved parents. Later on, I became a facilitator and coordinated support groups and grief camps for grieving children. I never imagined in those formative years that this journey would lead to writing and publishing our story, and ultimately, speaking and presenting workshops to the bereaved across the country about using dreams as a tool for healing through loss and transition.
This expanded edition of Dreaming Kevin is the result of guidance I received from a series of dreams in 2012. Earlier that year, I felt compelled to broaden my efforts in dream work beyond the bereavement field to include life transitions. I felt a resistance within me to move beyond the bereavement work because something about that notion felt incomplete. The dreams reminded me of three “projects” I had shelved years ago that needed my attention. The first one being to publish the expanded edition of Dreaming Kevin with an updated cover and an afterword section on healing; the second, a workbook dream journal for the bereaved; and the third, a children’s book about Amber’s dream visit with Kevin. I dove in, completed the first task, blessed it and moved down my list.
And, then, I heard Kevin’s sweet voice whisper in my ear, “Mom…what about the children? Don’t you remember? We were going to write about them too.”
It took my breath away. I knew that Dreaming Kevin was complete as far as my story was concerned. The afterword on healing was actually the segue to the story of the silent, unseen grief of the children. I believed that the children who experienced Kevin’s death first hand, and those who experienced it, through their parents or from a distance, shared a bond not only with Kevin, but also with one another.
How deep is the trauma after twenty-three years? What is their perspective of this life-changing event now that they are a young adult and/or parent of their own children? Would they be willing to share their memories of Kevin’s death and the impact it had on their lives? Would they even remember? Would they want to?
In no time, I created a questionnaire and a list of names and sent out the first round of emails. A day later, their heartfelt responses poured in with more depth and insight than I could have imagined. With their permission, I share their memories – an unedited, spontaneous, and universal dialogue on children’s grief.
Dreams & Blessings,
“There is no greater agony than bearing
an untold story inside you.”
~ Maya Angelo
Copyright 2014, 2024 Carla Blowey; Dreaming Kevin: The Path to Healing; Dreaming Kevin Publishing.
Companions on the Journey