Something for a Grieving Child
Dr. James Sutton, Psychologist
(Note: The podcast, When a Child Grieves, is a supplement to this article. It can be heard or downloaded in the Media Center link.)
A few years back I had an opportunity to work with a young man who came to live in a group home following the loss of his mother to cancer. (He had lived for a bit with his grandmother, but that arrangement didn’t work out.)
As I worked with him, I quickly developed a deep respect for this young teen. On his own, he had cared for his mother at home. He quite going to school to be with her, and even drove her car to the grocery store and the bank as he took care of the two of them. (He was never stopped or questioned by the police.)
As I worked with him at the group home, I asked a question I always ask: “Is there something I can do for you?”
“You could help me get a picture of my mother,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“When Mom died, my grandmother took down all of her pictures, saying it wasn’t good to dwell on the dead.”
“But you’d like to have a photograph of her to keep for yourself?”
“Yeah, I really would.”
I noted this need to the social worker who communicated the request to the grandmother. It took several months, but the picture finally arrived in the mail. It was the obituary card with the mother’s photograph on it, the card that had been passed out at the funeral.
You would have thought the boy had won the Publishers’ Sweepstakes. He carried that card with him everywhere and showed it to anyone who would give him a minute.
And I believe he began to heal a bit more quickly. He eventually quit carrying the picture and tacked it next to his bed. It meant a great deal to him.
Psychologists would call this obituary card a “transitional object.” In this case, it helped the boy more easily process the loss of his mother. In a sense, he carried a bit of his mother with him when he carried the card. On his own, he later tacked it next to his bed as he made the “transition,” the processing of the loss of his mother.
A New Question
I now ask a new question whenever youngsters tell me of the death of a significant adult in their life (often a grandparent):
They were a very important part of your life, weren’t they? Do you have a picture of them, or something that once belonged to them, a reminder to you of how special they were?
Rarely do they ask for much at all. One girl wanted only a small, decorative plate that was on the wall in her grandmother’s house. A young man secretly took a tube of lip balm from his grandmother’s medicine cabinet while his parents, aunts, and uncles were dividing up all her things.
A Word of Caution
On occasion, a transitional object can get a child in trouble. I worked with one teen whose father had died violently in a collision with another vehicle. Dad had been an avid bird hunter; he had shotguns, ammunition, and bird-hunting equipment all over the house.
The boy picked up about three of his dad’s empty shotgun shells one morning and slipped them in his pocket. He showed them around at school and … you guessed it: He got into serious trouble.
“They had already been fired, Dr. Sutton,” he explained. “Empty ones weren’t going to hurt anyone. I just felt better having them with me.”
I suggested to him that, if they had stayed in his pocket, no one would have known. Then I offered him an alternative that he readily accepted. We went out to the shop and cut off the lip of the shotgun shells with a hacksaw. Then we punched out the centers, making three flat, brass rings. He strung them on a chain and wore them around his neck. The problem was solved completely.
How long should we allow a child to hold onto a transitional object? Answer: Until they decide they no longer need it. The shotgun shell boy did something similar to the boy who finally got a photo of Mom and eventually stopped carrying it around with him. He realized one day at school that he had “accidently” left the shotgun shell necklace at home and, what’s more, he knew he was doing just fine without it. What better clue to the evidence of healing?
Are we only talking about children here? Hardly. I commented about transitional objects and a workshop once and two participants came up to me on the break. One gentleman reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver dollar so worn that it was completely slick on both sides. He shared his grandfather had given it to him more than 40 years ago. A woman showed me a sterling-silver pen from her purse. “It doesn’t even work anymore,” she said, “but my late husband once gave it to me as an anniversary present. It’s always with me.”
It’s often a challenge to convince parents and other caregivers how important a transitional object is to a grieving child, but they would be amazed at the difference it can make. ###
As a child and adolescent psychologist and former Special Education teacher, Dr. James Sutton has great compassion for young people, especially those who struggle. He is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters and his skill for speaking, writing and training on this subject. His monthly publication, the ODD Management Digest, is available at no cost and a link on the right or through his website, www.DocSpeak.com.