Share the load of your child’s grief-case
Yog Maya Singh tells how to become the grief thief for your child.
You must have heard about the 2018 movie Hamid. In this movie directed by Aijaz Khan, an eight-year-old-boy Hamid learns that 786 is God’s phone number. This Kashmiri boy decides to reach out to God by dialling this number because he wants to reconnect with his ‘dead’ father. Since his mother has told him that his father has gone to Allah, Hamid takes it literally and tries to talk to Allah so that he may allow his father to come back to the family. We all have felt like dialling God’s number at one point or another in our lives to bring back a loved one or to turn time in our favour (Only Savitri, Satyavan’s wife got through God’s hotline in all eternity). Grief is among the most difficult concepts for a child (even a grown up) to grasp. How do we make our children comfortable with the impermanence of life and the suddenness of death then?
For that, the change must begin with you, as parents. Almost all of us have lost a loved one; even losing a pet can have a devastating effect on some people, especially children. Grief is generally not a single feeling; it is more like a mixture of multiple other emotions like guilt (at not having fully helped the person who is no more), anger (how will I handle this alone now that you are gone?), regret (oh! how I wish I had maintained a work-life balance, so I could have listened to your heart’s promptings while you were alive), sadness (when I die will I also leave many things incomplete and so abruptly at that), fear (will I die too?), bewilderment (thinking about all the loved ones you could lose). ‘Grief’ in a sense is a ‘brief’ existential crisis for the young and the old alike. For the grown ups it is a conscious process, while for the young ones it is a subconscious process. However, if not handled properly, grief can be more than brief and take up a huge portion of a person’s life. The worst form of processing, grief is taking revenge on someone.
So each individual parent should sit down with themselves and ask themselves if they feel the grief of any kind before broaching the subject with their child. And grief need not be only for those who are not alive anymore. You can feel a deep ache in your chest for the best friend who gave up on you when you most needed her; the investor who backed out of your business at the last minute; that favourite book of yours that was never returned by a friend and is out of print now; when you weren’t able to understand your gay brother or lesbian sister’s pain at being unsupported; when your parents didn’t understand you, so on and so forth. Grief can also be felt for people you have never known.
Once you have figured out the exact thing/things you feel grief for, realise that your only reality is ‘now’ and that the past exists only in your memories. In your imagination go back and reimagine the situation where you did something terribly wrong or were at the receiving end and in your mind’s eye change the story in your favour. Neuroscience has proved that your subconscious doesn’t know the difference between a real story and a made up story. To, attain closure, in your mind’s eye forgive the other person or tell them they were wrong and they should ask for your forgiveness. Grief can be reduced by telling yourself a story with a happy ending. Get on top of your story rather than being crushed under its debris.
In case you were guilty of some mistake or neglect of a loved one, realise that becoming aware of your mistakes is half the battle won. You have changed as a person and there is nothing more that you can do for a person who is not there. The person lives only in your mind and you have to get closure by using your mind, by never repeating the same mistake with another human being. If you feel grief at not receiving enough love from a living person, know that not everyone will know your needs as well as you will know them. Most people don’t even know themselves, how can they assess your needs? One of the best ways to reduce grief with a living person is to communicate, openly, crisply and bravely. Close the circle of grief.
You have to be empty first to be able to attend to your child’s grief. Don’t go into deep conversations with your child about the concept of death. Start slowly and tell the stories in digestible pieces. I remember when I was in Class 3, I saw two men carrying a very small dead body covered in a shroud on a scooter. Till that time I thought only old people died and not young children. I was also going somewhere with my dad on our scooter when I saw this and started feeling scared that if other children die, I can die too. I started feeling very sad and told my dad this. He was kind enough to stop the scooter then and there and talked to me how sometimes children died too if they were unwell or had met with an accident but most people lived a long life by taking good care of themselves. And in order to give me closure he also told me that in Hinduism, children who die before 14 aren’t cremated, but buried. This talk came in handy many years later when I lost my 17-year-old first cousin suddenly. My dad didn’t go into the matters of life and death at a young age (he just passed on facts very softly to me). We had the life and death conversation when my cousin died at 17. I was 20 then. My point here is again to talk to your child about not what he/she ‘should’ know, but how much he or she ‘could’ individually grasp. Listen to your gut, the right words will start falling through while talking to your child. Never choose to talk to your child in public places about grief. It is a sacred conversation that should either be had in your homes or amidst nature (where one can see the old and the new life simultaneously).
Don’t use euphemisms while talking about death with your child. Tell them no more alive individual’s life story and tell the child that the person has chosen not to come back because they wanted to go on another adventure. A little introduction to spirituality never hurt anyone. Tell them that the other person has left permanently, but that they still love the child and also that as a parent you will be there for them. This is not the time to tell them that one can lose a parent also. That is a conversation for another year.
One of the worst kind of grief to handle is where a young child has lost his/her life (like the multiple shootings that keep on happening in US schools). The smallest coffins are the heaviest (My heart exploded into tiny little pieces during the Peshawar School shooting in 2014). How does a parent console the child when he himself/herself is grieving? How does one help a child get over the loss of a sibling? You don’t. At least not for 3- 4 days. You just huddle together as a family and process the pain physically and not verbally. In Hinduism, there are rituals that help people get over their grief in stages. Each step lessens the grief to a certain degree. And the final act of kapal kriya (breaking the skull with a bamboo stick) is the antim (last act) part of the antim sanskar (last rites). Whoever is performing the last rites is supposed to break the skull of the dead person with a bamboo stick as a final act of detachment. Many people might see the hitting the skull as a hurtful act and many might see it as a compassionate act (breaking the skull so that it isn’t used for occult practices). Earlier women were not allowed to see this final act of detachment because a woman often likes the idea of attachment or belonging to someone and she had to be attached to a new-born baby in order for it to survive. However, times have changed and with more people knowing their minds and hearts better the rituals also are changing with the times. If even after this final act some people are unable to let go of attachment, then there is the process of ‘asthi visarjan’ or collecting the ashes of the dead in an urn and letting it be washed away by the currents of the river Ganga. One could finally see that a living person who was born from dust has once again merged into dust. I feel not every ritual is to be derided. Yes there should not be rigid rituals but once we begin to understand the reason behind many of them, you will understand that most of them are stepping stones to peace. Big emotions like love (marriage), birth and death are too big a concept to be grasped by most individuals single-handedly, thus rituals help in getting people attached or detached bit by bit, in steps as per requirement. You cannot truly detach before getting truly attached. Grief is born out of attachment and grief dies by detachment.
Acquaint your child with the small rituals in the particular faith/religion you follow. If you are culture-neutral, even better, for you can take the best practices from every culture and make them your own. I was surprised to know that the word utsav (celebration) is made up of ut (removal) + sav (dead, shav as in Savasana). So in a sense life is a celebration, constantly removing all your dead beliefs, dead and rigid thoughts that don’t serve you anymore. The best way to teach your child how to handle grief is to celebrate life to the fullest. Chances are grief won’t be able to have a tight hold on your child. Dukh hoga par shok me doobe hue dil nahi honge.