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Young People … Our Greatest Resource

Something for a Grieving Child

SOMETHING FOR A GRIEVING CHILD: Grieving children can present a multitude of behaviors as they attempt to process the loss of a loved one, even behaviors of defiance, noncompliance, and a lot of anger. Caretaking adults can help a grieving child a great deal with one simple gesture. This article tells how it can be accomplished.

A few years back I had the 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 did not work out.) I’ll call him Charles.

As I worked with Charles, I quickly developed a deep respect for this young man. On his own, he had cared for his mother at home. He quit going to school (middle school) in order to be with her. He even drove her car to the grocery store, post office, 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 Charles at the group home, I asked a question I always ask. The discussion went like this:

Is there something I can do for you, Charles?

You could help me get a picture of my mother.

What do you mean?

When Mom died, my grandmother took down all of her pictures. She said it wasn’t good to dwell on the dead.

But you’d like to have a photograph of her to keep for yourself. Is that right. Charles?

Yeah, I would; I really would.

I noted this need to the social worker who communicated the request to the boy’s grandmother. It took several months, but the picture finally arrived in the mail. It was an obituary card with the mother’s picture on the front, the card that had been passed out at her funeral.

You would have thought the boy had won the Publisher’s Sweepstakes. He carried that card with him everywhere and showed it to anyone who would give him a minute.

I believe he began to heal more readily. Charles eventually quit carrying the card and tacked it on the wall next to his bed. It meant a great deal to him.

Transitional Objects

Psychologists would call this obituary card with the mother’s picture a “transitional object.” In this case, it helped the boy more easily process the loss of his mother. He had a bit of his mother with him when he had the card in his pocket or notebook. On his own, he later tacked it next to his bed as he made the “transition,” the processing of the loss of his mother. He didn’t need to carry it, anymore.

A New Question

I now ask a new question whenever a youngster tells me of the death of a significant adult in their life (often a grandparent):

It sounds like they were a very important part of your life. Do you have a picture of them, or something that once belonged to them, a reminder to you of how special they were?

My experience has been they don’t ask for much at all; they simply want something. One girl wanted only a small, decorative plate that hung on the wall in her grandmother’s living room. A young man told me how he secretly “stole” a tube of lip balm from his grandmother’s medicine cabinet while his parents, aunts, and uncles busied themselves dividing up Grandma’s things. He was left out of that; he said as much.

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 three of his dad’s empty shotgun shells one morning and slipped them into 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 what looked like three, flat brass washers. He strung them on a chain and put it around his neck. He was happy, and the problem was solved.

How Long?

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 Charles when he eventually quit carrying his mother’s picture with him. This boy realized one day at school that he “forgot” and left his shotgun shell necklace at home. More importantly, he made it through the day just fine without it, and knew he had done so. What better evidence of the progress of healing?

Adult, Too!

Are we talking only about children here? Hardly. I commented about transitional objects at 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 it was completely slick on both sides. He shared how 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; I couldn’t bear to lose it.”

Sometimes it can be a challenge to convince parents and caregivers how important a transitional object is to a grieving child. But they would be amazed at the difference it can make.

James D. Sutton, EdD, CSP

Consulting Psychologist/Certified Speaking Professional
PO Box 672, Pleasanton, TX 78064
(800) 659-6628 Email:

September 8, 2011 - Posted by | Counselors, Educators, family, Healthy living, Parents, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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