Helen Fitzgerald is a renowned educator and writer on death and dying. She will be writing a column for Beliefnet on the grief of children and teens.
Q1. Ever since my husband's death last summer my 7-year-old son has been acting out. He spends much of his time in his room sulking, has temper tantrums, fights with his sister, and is getting into trouble at school. Even though I assume this behavior was triggered by his father's death, I am at my wit's end trying to control him. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do?
In all likelihood, your son is feeling intense anger over the death of his father. Were they close? Did they go fishing together? Did they play ball? Whatever part your late husband played in your son's life, it appears to have been very important, and your son is having great difficulty visualizing his life without that support.
He could also be angry about something unrelated. Some unthinking person could have said something about his father that was false, or he could somehow imagine that his father's death was his fault. Lacking an adult sense of reality, children often see themselves as capable of causing important things to happen, such as the death of a parent.
I suggest that you sit down with your son--just the two of you--and talk about his anger. He may want to avoid the subject at first, but you can help move it along by commenting on how angry you feel, too. Try to find out what is at the base of his anger--his father's death or something else. If his anger stems from something other than his father's death, you may be able to do something about that--like correcting a false statement or making clear the true cause of death. If he is simply angry because of his father's death, tell him that feeling angry is OK; it's how he expresses it that may be not-OK. Ask him whether he feels angry all of the time, or only some of the time. How does he know when his anger is starting to get out of control? Do his knuckles turn white? Does he want to cry? Does his head hurt? Asking such questions will help him to see that it's all right to have such feelings. And then talk about some ways that he can express his anger in an acceptable way.
What is an acceptable way? How about a punching bag? There are some stand-alone bags that work pretty well, or you could buy him some boxing gloves and install a real punching bag in the basement. And then let him hit it to his heart's delight. You and he will be amazed at what a difference this release of tension can make in his outlook.
There are other outlets for all that pent-up anger. If he likes basketball, you could put up a basketball backboard in the basement or yard, and let him shoot baskets to release his anger. If he plays soccer, he could work out his anger kicking the soccer ball. Another idea: have him draw a picture of what makes him angry and then talk about it with you. He may have other ideas once you get into this discussion. The important thing is that he will come to see that his anger is acceptable as long as it is channeled appropriately.
Finally, if his acting out continues, he could need professional help. Short of that, there may be a children's grief group that your son could attend. I have conducted such groups for over 20 years, and I have seen many angry, obstreperous youngsters mellow as they talked out their frustrations. You could call your local community mental health center to find out what's available.
Q2. I have never been comfortable with the idea of taking small children to funerals. I'm interested in the reasons why one might do so.
As a parent you want to protect your child from unpleasant or frightening things, and in the end you must be the judge. But there are reasons why attending the funeral of a loved one can be beneficial to a child. If the person who died played an important role in his or her life, the child needs a chance to say goodbye one way or another, and attending a funeral is one way of doing that. If denied that chance, the child may later resent having been excluded. Also, funerals help with the reality of death, which small children have difficulty grasping, oftentimes consciously waiting for the deceased to return home. Finally, seeing relatives and friends gathered at the funeral can be reassuring to a child, confirming that most of the child's support structure is still in place, whereas being left out could have the opposite effect.
Before taking a child to a funeral, however, prepare him or her for what to expect--who will be there, what will happen, and, if the casket is to be open before the service, what the body will look and feel like. But don't force your child to do anything he or she doesn't want to do, including attending the funeral. The funeral should be seen as an opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one, but not as an assigned chore.