Healthy Grief can mean strange behavior
Grief may include emotions and actions that you haven't seen in your child before. These new patterns of behavior can be especially hard to manage because you are still juggling the endless to do list of being a good parent while in the throes of your own grief.
- Separation Anxiety. A grieving child's world has been turned upside down. In this new normal, they cling to the one thing that they know is constant: you. School drop-offs were especially emotional for my five year old after Charlotte died. His teachers had to physically hold on to him as we left the first day. I will never forget the desperation in his voice as he cried out for us to come back. It was heartbreaking. After that terrible day, we made sure that we put an "I love you stone" in his pocket, love notes with "kiss spots" in his lunch box, and gave constant reassurance at home and on the way to school that we loved him and would be back for him soon.
- Tantrums and "acting out". Jack's behavior changed at home and at school. Getting dressed each morning became an epic battle and getting him out of the bathtub was like a hostage negotiation. He frequently balled his fists, scrunched his nose up, and yelled at us for everything from heating his pancakes when he wanted them cold to offering to help him tie his shoes. His teachers suggested that he was "daydreaming" and "getting frustrated with friends not listening" a bit more than usual. As a former kindergarten teacher, I know that these sweet women were actually saying that my son was not doing anything that he was supposed to do during work time and being a bossy so-and-so on the playground. I learned that Jack's behavior changes were really a cry for reassurance. He needed to see that he was still loved (even when he drove us nuts). We made a book together called Unconditional Love. I wrote that mommy loved Jack, Sam and Charlotte unconditionally . They didn't have to earn her love; she loved them whether they were naughty or nice, and whether they were here with me or far away. Jack illustrated the book and has checked in periodically with us, "You love me... unconditionally...., right mommy and daddy?" Yes, kiddo. We do.
- Anger at parents for not protecting the baby. For my five year old, the loss of Charlotte was like a broken promise from his mommy. He stomped his feet and crossed his little arms, shouting, "You TOLD me there was going to be a baby! You lied!" He was genuinely mad at me for not bringing her home to him. Just like the temper tantrums, this reaction had a hidden meaning. He wanted to know that he could trust us and that we hadn't done anything to purposefully lose our baby...he wanted to make sure that we would never do anything to lose him. It's hard to cuddle with someone who is yelling at you, but this is exactly what we did. We told him that he was safe and loved, over and over again.
- Insensitive or strange questions and comments. Jack was notorious for making 'sucker-punch comments'. I would step out of the bathroom at 6am and- BAM- he'd ask, "Is Charlotte still dead?". He always managed to catch me off-guard and always made me cry. While these sucker punches seemed insensitive, they were just Jack's way of trying to establish the boundaries of such an abstract concept. Sometimes you have to dig deeper to get to the bottom of why a child asked a particular question. Charlotte died on October 21st, so Halloween was just ten days later. Jack was coloring a picture when he suddenly sat up and asked, "Mommy, how do they get the bones out?". I was alarmed, thinking that, for sure, this was going to be the dreaded conversation about what would happen to Charlotte's bones and I certainly had no idea how to explain cremation to a five year old. With a few more prodding questions, I realized that he was asking about the decorations he had seen while trick-or-treating. He had made the connection between dinosaur bones in the museum (real) and the plastic skeletons (not real). "Why do people hang their grandpas out at Halloween, mommy?" My child thought that our custom was to hang our ancestors out as Halloween decorations.
- Abrupt shifts from grieving to play. Children process their grief in spurts. They may be especially sad or angry for a period of time, but stop immediately once they have exhausted that emotion. Sometimes there is a pattern to when these shifts will happen and sometimes they are random. Often the think-time afforded by coloring or key words in stories and shows triggered Jack's expressions of grief.
- Disrupted sleep patterns. Like adults, some children sleep more and some sleep less when they are depressed or grieving. My youngest inherited my tendency toward insomnia. After Charlotte died, Sam rarely fell asleep before 10 or 11, despite starting his bedtime routine at 7 each night. There were many nights that we would hear him singing or reading to himself quietly, even at 2 in the morning. Jack had the opposite reaction. He seemed to require more sleep than he ever had before. He struggled to get out of bed in the mornings whether he had gone to sleep on time or not.