Thursday, July 09, 2009

Kids need to 'say goodbye' to departed parents

While some were overcome with grief as they watched Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, 11, eulogize her father Michael, others felt the moment was exploitative. Experts say there's nothing wrong with a child expressing her grief – as long as she's doing it of her own accord.

For many who watched this week's Michael Jackson memorial, the final tribute by his only daughter, Paris, was the ceremony's most heart-wrenching moment.

“I just wanted to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. I just wanted to say I love him so much,” Paris Michael Katherine Jackson said before succumbing to tears. Joining her onstage were her brothers, Prince Michael, 12, and Prince Michael II, 7, who sat with a Michael Jackson doll on his lap throughout the service.

Yesterday, blogs were filled with accounts of people overcome with grief as they watched the 11-year-old shakily grip the microphone and deliver her poignant message. But some observers also questioned the appropriateness of a child publicly eulogizing a beloved parent.

“Having her grieve in front of the entire world felt incredibly exploitative,” Jessica Grose wrote on the blog DoubleX.

However, psychologists and grief counsellors say there's nothing wrong with allowing a child to express her grief – as long as she's doing it of her own accord.

“Children need to be able to say goodbye, as long as it is their choice to do so,” said Linda Cameron, an educational psychologist at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Prof. Cameron believes that the public tribute was an important way for Paris to say goodbye and that she will be “forever grateful” for that opportunity.

Many families, she says, are wholly unprepared to help their children navigate the largely uncharted waters of death, eulogies and family funerals. Parents don't know how to explain a loss, prepare for an open-casket funeral, help a child understand that someone's death isn't their fault or allow them to make a public statement if that is their desire.

Experts concur that young children should be given the choice of whether to attend the funeral of a close relative and told beforehand what to expect. They should also be accompanied by an adult, and the loss should be explained in a concrete way. Children are capable of understanding the finality of the biology of death and don't need to have the blow cushioned with metaphorical language.

“Many children want to know, ‘Where did the person go? Are they cold?' It's important to give an honest answer and to explain that the person has stopped breathing and isn't in pain,” Prof. Cameron said.

Carl Corter, who holds the Atkinson chair in early childhood development at OISE, adds: “It is best to be frank and not to try to delude children about the reality of biological death. That should be a clear starting point. Then a message about the spiritual dimension of the person living on in the lives of others, or in heaven, if that's the family's belief system, is appropriate.”

At the same time, children don't need to hear all the gory details. That's why experts suggest allowing them to take the lead and have adults respond to children's queries. If they cannot express their feelings about the loss of a loved one, then children cannot move on from the trauma of a death. It is also important to give children the chance to celebrate the memory of their loved one..

Prof. Cameron has personal experience with childhood loss: Her “adored” father died when she was just 12. She really wanted to speak at his funeral and let people know how much she loved him. “But at the time the attitude was, little girls should be seen and not heard. So they silenced me,” she recalls. “The script was very much, ‘Don't be sad. He has gone to heaven.'”

Her grief and pain were denied, and her loss unacknowledged. “Children are the people who are most affected when a parent dies and they are the ones who are least thought about at funerals,” she said.

As for Paris, the bigger concern now is the long-term impact of the exposure and media attention her fleeting, 30-second eulogy has generated. After Michael Jackson went to such great lengths to shield his children from the public eye – often covering their faces in veils and masks when they appeared in public – his daughter is now in the spotlight.

“Now people will remember Paris and visualize her and say, ‘What about Paris?'” Prof. Corter said. “Being onstage may change her life in a way that is beyond even the loss of her father.”

Helping kids cope

Don't use metaphors or make death so mystical that children cannot understand the “biological finality.”

Don't promise that you won't die.

Expect children to grieve differently. Some may regress in their behaviour, or need a night light or wet their bed.

Encourage children to express their feelings through drawings and other creative outlets.

Maintain structure, rules and limits so that children have security that some things have not changed.

Save special items from the person, such as a collection or piece of clothing, to give children later.

Don't be afraid to cry or grieve in front of your children.

By Marina Jiménez

Source: The Globe and Mail

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