So there‘s this thing called grief. You’ve probably heard of it. You probably wish you hadn’t heard of it. It is scary and unfamiliar. It comes when we least expect it and leaves us in the dark. Things are not as they used to be, or should be, and we find it difficult to go about our normal routine knowing grief is lurking.
Several years ago, I invited a young client to draw their grief experience however was appropriate to them at the time. This child drew a monster. More specifically, a hairy green grief monster. This monster represented all the feelings, emotions, thoughts, and questions they had related to their loss. This monster represented anger, sadness, fear. This monster kept them awake at night.
This grief monster made them scream and cry and hide in the house and lash out at people. All they wanted was for him to go away, so they tucked him away in the corner of their mind and tried their best to avoid him.
Through our time together, we identified the grief monster showed up the same day this child’s loved one died and it wasn’t going away. In fact, the grief monster was here to stay for good. We agreed that we might as well see if we can get used to him, maybe even become friends, and share some memories together.
As children get older and are able to process their experiences, their grief monster gets older too. Their relationship evolves, just like any relationship does. They may start to understand each other a little bit differently. Their grief monster makes them feel ways they didn’t feel before, sometimes better, sometimes worse. They ask him questions they didn’t ask him before and, because of their own life experience, they feel differently about him than they did at first. They do different things together than they used to. They still sometimes hate him, because he makes them cry, but they also love that he shares memories with them, continues bonds, and helps them live on in a way that their loved one would have wanted.
Considering your child’s age and current grief experience, invite them to share with you what their grief monster looks like today. How have they encountered their grief monster and what thoughts come up for them? Art is often a helpful medium when talking with children about big feelings. I encourage you to sit down with your child and invite them to draw their grief monster.
Some of these tips may be helpful as you move forward:
- Acknowledge the presence of the grief monster (thoughts, feelings, questions).
- Be patient and open minded. Allow them to illustrate their grief monster in their own way.
- Be available – Sit with the child, listen to them, and answer their questions.
- Let them know that a range of different emotions are normal.
- Validate their feelings and do not minimize them.
- Be mindful that grief monsters are ever present, but their expression shifts over time (grief will change over a day, week, month, year).
As you witness your child illustrate their own grief monster, it may be helpful to share with them what your grief monster looks like, too. This exercise can be helpful for both adults and children as we seek to make friends with our grief monsters, normalize these scary and unfamiliar feelings, and invite them into the light.
Excerpts from this article were inspired by What’s Your Grief December 14, 2015