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Childhood grief

July 25, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
I feel fortunate I was 18 before someone very close to me died. My grandmother's heart gave out one Sunday morning while she was eating her corn flakes. Just like that, she was gone.

Even at 18, I had a tough time.

Although Gram was 72, and in hindsight it was a blessing she died quickly and painlessly, it nonetheless was a massive shock to the family. We had all -- including my grandmother and grandfather -- expected my grandfather to go first. We weren't being morbid, just realistic. After all, he was the one who had a heart attack in his late 40s, open-heart surgery in his late 50s and a crippling stroke at 60.

But no, God surprised us with Gram's abrupt exit on Aug. 11, 1991. She was my moral compass, my biggest fan, my worst critic. She was ornery and a sharp wordsmith, a writer whose skills were put to use too infrequently -- mainly in her annual Christmas letter. I admired her gifts, aspired to be like her.

When she "left," I went a little off the deep end. She died a week before I ventured 1,000 miles from home as a college freshman. Unfortunately, I floundered a bit that semester. To put it mildly, I treated myself poorly, abusing alcohol and food and engaging in other risky behavior. I lost my focus.

Grief is a wicked emotion. I don't mean evil; I mean powerful, heart-rending, all-consuming. The only thing that comes close, in my experience, is a broken heart. And many times, the two go hand in hand.

How people deal with grief has been on my mind because of some of the recent deaths in the Ohio Valley that are the result of violence, treachery and/or senselessness, and I pray that the families of the deceased -- in particular the children in these families -- are getting the help and support they need.

My thoughts turn to the family of "Boogie" Zervos-Wolverton, the postmistress who was cut down last Friday by two blasts from a shotgun in Dallas, W.Va. She had two children, a daughter who already suffered the loss of her father, and a teenage son whose father allegedly murdered his mother. She also had two young grandchildren and several great-nieces and -nephews.

I think of the family of James Lohr of Triadelphia, allegedly killed and dumped in the Ohio River by his son and daughter-in-law. He had young grandchildren who now must deal with their grandfather's horrible death and the knowledge that their parents are the prime murder suspects.

I think of the siblings and little cousins of Chaz Lightner, who died in February of alcohol poisoning after a night of partying at a friend's house in Moundsville.

And so many others ... children (and adults) left behind by loved ones who were the victims of war, homicides, suicides, not to mention accidents and illnesses.

Children are resilient, the experts say, but how they handle grief depends on many factors -- their age, their maturity level, their family circumstances and the manner of death.

How well the family functions after a loss determines how well the children adjust: "Children will do best when their families are coping effectively," according to experts who participated in a Hospice Foundation of America "Living With Grief: Children and Adolescents" teleconference in April. This is a word of caution to parents and other older family members.

Grieving children need to be guided toward healthy outlets -- group therapy, talking with peers, painting, writing. Some will need support and monitoring by adults to ensure they are doing OK -- eating properly, attending school and other functions and not turning to drugs, alcohol, sex or other dangerous behaviors.

The hospice experts also said children and adolescents (as well as adults) should be encouraged to find ways to continue a bond with the deceased. (The old way of dealing with grief -- "She's gone. Forget about it." -- is no longer the prevailing theory.)

Back in 1991, when I finally went home on Christmas break from my first semester at college, I was a wreck. My mom sensed my brokenness, and I sensed her concern. Someone DOES care, I thought. I needed that. (Being in the room with her was somehow so much different from talking on the phone.)

Seeing her and my grandfather coping well, talking to them and crying with them, helped clear my vision. I regained my focus and began to clean up my act. Soon after returning to campus, I got involved with what my sister's husband calls "the God squad," and my new Christian friends gave me the support and friendship I lacked the first semester.

It was then that I discovered a way to turn my grief into a tribute instead of a disaster. Previously undecided on a course of study, I declared English as my major and set my sights on becoming a writer. My whole life has become a tribute to my grandmother.

I can only hope our local grieving children will somehow find something good to come out of the tragic and senseless nature of their loved ones' deaths.


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