Loren needed to leave the room. She walked with trepidation toward the door exiting the RIE parenting class. But then she paused and she asked me, “Should I just go?” Since she had clearly told her ten-month-old Trevor what she was doing, I encouraged her, “Yes!” Seeing his mother depart, Trevor began to cry. I approached him and spoke softly. “Your mom went out. She’s coming back. You didn’t want her to go.”
The simple acknowledgement of Trevor’s point of view calmed him almost instantly. He sniffled once or twice and then sat patiently, eyes fixed on the door, waiting for his mom to return.
This situation was repeated the following week in class. Loren told Trevor, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and somewhat tentatively walked out. Trevor cried. I went to him and said, “You didn’t want her to go. She’s coming back. It’s hard when your mom leaves and you don’t want her to. Do you want me to pick you up?” (He didn’t) This time Trevor continued to cry for a seemingly endless minute. I felt the discomfort of everyone in the class, including my own! Finally, having expressed his pain completely, he became quiet, sat still for a moment, then reached for a nearby ball. By the time Loren came back he was involved in play, but when he saw her he cried out to her and seemed to be objecting to her previous action. She sat with him and allowed him to finish his complaints. He soon became interested in his surroundings again.
No one likes to hear the sound of a crying baby. Even a few seconds of crying can be unbearable for most adults to hear. Whether we are a parent, grandparent or paid caregiver we feel that we are failing if the child in our care is upset. We want to distract a crying child, to make the child smile, and we will do almost anything in our power to put an end to the feeling that is triggering the child’s tears. But ask yourself: when a loved one leaves, should we not feel a sense of loss and sadness?
Let’s say we follow our natural urges when dealing with Trevor. When Trevor’s mom leaves, he cries, we rush to him. “It’s okay, it’s okay! Mommy’s coming back! Don’t cry…shhhh shhhh. Oh, look at this BALL…here, catch it, catch it! Yay!” This action could indeed put an abrupt end to Trevor’s outburst and he would stop crying. But what is the child learning? Most importantly, where did those feelings of loss go?
Fast-forward a few years. Trevor’s beloved family dog dies. His parents are devastated and Trevor’s sad cries only magnify their grief. “Trevor…Oh, it’s okay, it’s okay! Don’t cry…shhhh! It’s all right. We have to be strong. We’ll get another dog—a new puppy!”
The recent death of my mother has given me renewed interest in the grief process. The problem, as so aptly put by John W. James and Russell Friedman in The Grief Recovery Handbook, is that, “We’re taught how to acquire things, not what to do when we lose them.” Parents, friends, and even society encourage us to cover up grief rather than to deal with it productively. Don’t feel bad. Replace the loss. Be strong for others. Keep busy. These are a sampling of the spoken and unspoken suggestions we are given, starting at a young age, for dealing with grief. They require us to ignore our honest feelings, hold them in, bury them. They are well-intentioned ideas sprung from the discomfort of those around us; no one wants to see us upset. But these directions only undermine our ability to express our true feelings, steering us to the incomplete resolution of grief and loss.
Grieving people want and need to be heard not fixed. But grievers also want the approval of others, and thus feel the need to appear recovered for them. Our suppressed and unresolved feelings will then diminish our joie de vivre and sap our life energy. We may seek relief in drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors. At best, we are responding unnaturally to loss and disappointment, continuing habits that threaten future happiness and a sense of well being. This is why it is vital to learn how to cope with loss in its simplest and earliest forms.
At Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) we are fortunate to study emotional health at the beginning of life, and as I pondered the origins of grief for a child, I thought of infants like Trevor experiencing the momentary absence of a loved one. A parent’s separation, even to go into the next room, is indeed the first loss most children face. If we can handle this situation carefully, perhaps we can send a child in a healthy direction as they experience future losses in life.
Another early loss children deal with occurs when a sibling is born. The older child’s relationship with his primary caregivers is altered suddenly and profoundly. No matter how sensitively the parents handle the situation, no matter how much the child appears to ‘love’ the new baby, there is grief for the preexisting situation, for what once was. The new third party causes forced reconfiguration of the child’s place in his world and tremendous loss. If a child can be trusted and encouraged to express the gamut of negative feelings he or she may be having, and if parents can use what energy they have to keep behavioral limits consistently intact while allowing for painful feelings, then the child can stay on the course of healthy emotional release.
When the children in our care are grieving a loss, no matter how insignificant the loss may seem to us, our job is to simply let them grieve. Infant expert and founder of RIE, Magda Gerber, often reminded her students, “Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.” Trevor, and all infants, can be trusted to grieve as individuals in a unique and perfect way. Infants demonstrate the authentic expression of their feelings when given the opportunity. If we can give them the space and time to express painful feelings instead of arresting their cries, and if we can steady ourselves to work through our own discomfort, then our children can be reassured that their true responses are accepted and appropriate. Children thus can continue to experience loss naturally, learn to deal with loss capably, and know that loss is survivable. This mindful approach is vital because when we adopt it, far from failing, we are providing the highest level of care…and love.
I share more about infants, toddlers and emotional health in my new book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
(Photo by alicegop on Flickr)