The ramifications of loss can last a lifetime


For many it is impossible to discuss loss, and the ramifications can last a lifetime

One the most memorable Saturday morning radio programs of my childhood during the late 1940s were about what happened to lost toys. Its theme still haunts me. A fatherly fish named Red Lantern guided two children (who surely I identified as my brother David and me) deep into the Land of the Lost. Every show opened with the same line: “In that wonderful kingdom at the bottom of the sea” lost objects are stored beneath the waves. In the fathomless deep could be found precious objects waiting to be claimed by their child.

I remember going to sleep with the voice of the Red Lantern, most memorably played by the late Art Carney, soothing me deep to the land of dreams. At the bottom of my sea was a teddy bear I particularly loved and slept with every night until once, sick with a bug, I vomited all over it. I remember crying and crying when I could not find him again, and those dream times in the depth of the ocean helped make the loss more palatable. I seemed to know that love, although no longer tangible, could always be found in the heart.

Loss at any age can provoke anxiety and is never easy to cope with. A loss can take many forms; a friend moving, pet dying, divorce of parents, or the death of a loved one. Over the years in my private practice, many children and young adults have shared the pain they have felt when families were torn apart through divorce or death. Heartbreaking also, are tales of young lives snuffed out in sudden car crashes or horrific accidents.

Grief counselors and bereavement counselors, formerly unheard of, have become much-appreciated facilitators by helping those who face the difficulties involved with losing a friend or relative. Yet for many, it is almost impossible to discuss loss, and the ramifications of not confronting that loss can last a lifetime. I can personally attest to this. During the long ago darkened period during which my mother was dying of cancer, rather than finding a kindly Red Lantern, my brother and I were left to figure out the situation out all on our own. My father disappeared into his own world and never again mentioned my mother’s name. He took away all of her memorabilia and photographs and, angry with her family, who thought he was not up to the task of childrearing, he broke off all communication. The only way we ever saw our relatives was when our elementary school secretary, a neighbor, let my aunt’s park outside the school. My brother and I would run out for a few stolen moments of comfort. Loss experienced so young can become a leitmotif and manifest in a lifelong inability to trust or other difficulties in connecting with others.

One has to ask: can any one actually adjust to loss? Developing a coping mechanism for loss is important to an individual’s survival and mental health, and stories can often provide an opening for discussion with a child. I still vividly remember one of the most feared elementary school bullies running up the aisle of the local movie theater crying his eyes out after Bambi’s mother was shot by the evil hunter in the Disney cartoon. Then there is Babar, the orphaned baby elephant in Jean de Brunhoff’s classics, losing his parents and trading in the life he was born into for one constricted and bound by the rules of human society.

Helping a child honestly cope with loss and understand that loss is inevitable and unavoidable is one of the most important roles that adults can play in the life of a child. The New York Times Fashion and Style section featured an article — “Could I Forgive Him One Last Time” — on Dec. 31 by Victoria Rosner. It is a particularly poignant piece, which chronicles how a divorced mother integrates a previously disinterested father into their child’s life when he discovers he is dying of bone cancer. She had been with her former husband for 10 years and while she was pregnant with their son, they split up with acrimony. He wanted no part of his child until he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. What a brave, and what must have been painful decision. The ex-wife chose to give their 2-year-old an opportunity to know his father for even so short a time. This decision exposed the child to the ravages of his father’s condition and ultimate death.

Such choices, although different, confront each and every one of us at one time or another.

As is the case with one so young, the child did not understand and could not comprehend finality. With passing time he grew to understand his loss, and in fact incorporated it into a desire to live.

”…Another child approached Judah and asked in a worried voice, “Your daddy died?” Judah nodded. “Does that mean he’s not coming back?” Judah put his hand on the other child’s shoulder. “Yes, but it’s OK,” he said. “I’m alive. You’re alive. Want to play?”

I believe it is important to err on the side of truth. How many times have children been told a pet was lost when it actually died, or been denied the truth about the condition of a relative or a friend? Closure, too, is important. A wound left to fester can last for years, or even a lifetime. Children are not too fragile to be included in a process of mourning and the truth helps them understand, not imagine. The imagination can play strange tricks with the child whose loss has not honestly been shared. He or she might even anthropomorphize that which is gone, resulting in a removal from reality, and make healing difficult, if not impossible.

Many resources are available to families facing loss. One excellent source is the National Network for Childcare, housed at Kansas State University. Although geared specifically to a child’s perception of death, the methods can be applied to other experiences of loss and abandonment as well. Their fact sheet is developmental and offers suggestions for both preschool and older children. Included is an outstanding selection on the subjects of separation, loss and death (www.nncc.org/Guidance/understand.death.html).

While working at Albert Einstein Hospital, I was privy to a session with a psychologist who was giving a child the opportunity to mourn his mother who had died in a tragic accident. We had little shoeboxes filled with her favorite things, memories, pictures and little gifts from her son. The boy had been denied attendance at the funeral, so we held a mock ceremony. Yes, it was a tearful event, but healing as well. Loss is an inevitable. Honestly facing that inevitability with courage and compassion is important for one’s mental health and building the courage to face tomorrows.