Q: My husband was killed nearly a year ago, and my 11-year-old son is still having a difficult time with it. Before the accident, he was always cheerful and social and hardly ever complained. That still describes him, most of the time, but every now and again he slips into moods where he is just the opposite. These episodes occur once every couple of weeks and last for a couple of days, on average. I took him to see a therapist a while back, but I saw no change after three months of weekly sessions, so I took him out. When these moods happen, we talk about how special his dad was and how much he misses him, but I don’t think I’m making any headway. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.
A: Over the past forty or so years, a number of researchers have identified and generated a fairly extensive body of literature concerning the stages of the grieving process. These include denial, anger, depression, and final acceptance. The general feeling among mental health professionals is that the process should be allowed to run its course, which takes longer in some individuals than in others.
That’s generally good advice, but as is the case with most general rules, there are exceptions. Some people, for example, get “hung up” at some point in the process. They need facilitators who can help them get unstuck and move on. That role can be served by a therapist, a friend who’s gone through the process, or a group of people who are all grieving for similar reasons.
When a child gets stuck, as seems to be the case with your son, it is often the case that continued discussion of the child’s feelings is going to make matters worse rather than better. I was recently discussing this very issue with a psychologist who works with military families who have lost a loved one in war. He said that one of his biggest challenges is recognizing when talking about a person’s feelings has become counterproductive.
My educated guess is that your son has reached the point where the more he talks about how much he misses his dad, the more he’s going to miss his dad and the more often he’s going to slip into these funks of his. He needs someone to help him get unstuck, and I suggest that you’re in the best position to give him that gentle push. After all, there’s no one he trusts more than you.
Don’t wait for the next episode. Instead, talk to him when the proverbial iron is cold. Say something along these lines: “I’ve noticed that when we talk about your dad and how much you miss him, we are talking about things we’ve talked about before. That’s good, because it means that there’s really nothing more to say. So I’ve decided that from now on, we’re only going to talk about your dad twice a month, every other Saturday morning (for example) right after breakfast. That’s the best time because neither of us has to be anywhere and we can talk as long as we need to. The new rule, however, is that we can’t talk about stuff we’ve already talked about. We have to talk about new stuff.”
That will mean that you have to enforce two rules: first, you only talk twice a month; second, you don’t go over stuff you’ve already talked about. Initially, you may need to say things like, “I’ve noticed that you might be thinking about your dad again. That’s fine. Take some time to think about what we’re going to talk about next Saturday. Write it down so you don’t forget, but remember, we only talk about new stuff.”
The combination of your authority and the new rules will provide exactly what he needs to begin resolving his sadness and moving on. The likelihood is, when it comes time for a scheduled talk session, he really won’t have much, if anything, to talk about. That, in fact, is the goal.