After a seminar one afternoon, a young mother said, “I have always had to work outside my home, and my 3-year-old son has gone to the same day care since he was an infant.  My husband and I recently separated.  Now when I drop him off at day care, my son cries, whines and clings to me.  His caregiver tells me he sits by himself, not wanting to play with his friends.  I now realize my son is suffering from emotional shock and fear of abandonment.  He thinks I am not coming back to take him home.” 

Alarm.  Jewett says, “Because children look to their parents to keep them safe, the loss of a family member heightens their sense of vulnerability” (p.25).  Children experiencing this tendency will exhibit insomnia, loss of appetite, food binges and physical ailments such as earaches, sore throats and colds.  When the stress does not subside, their immune system begins to break down, and they become prone to infection. 

Denial and Disbelief.  When shock and numbing wears off and reality becomes too difficult to handle, a child often experiences denial.  The child may think, Everything is going to be like it used to be.  Dad will come back and we will be fine. 

If children choose to be in denial, do not try to pull them out.  Rather, be available and support them, but don’t force reality.  If denial continues for an excessive time, professional help should be considered.  Your place is to love and accept your children and listen to their concerns. 

Hyperactivity.  This impulsive behavior, when found in children of divorce, is thought to be related to high stress levels.

Seven-year-old Jimmy and his two older sisters were living with Dad after Mom walked out on the family.  She then came back and initiated a custody battle, which was when I met the family at a church program designed for single parents. 

The program leaders had trouble handling Jimmy’s high intensity and impulsivity.  While the other children sat at the table doing crafts, Jimmy ran around knocking down chairs.  His hyperactivity was related to the trauma occurring in his home. 

One evening, an exasperated children’s leader massaged his shoulders to calm him down. Jimmy’s body wilted.  With his head bowed and his shoulders bent, he said, “My mom used to do that.”  His behavior improved from that moment on.  The children’s leader had not only touched Jimmy’s shoulders, she had also touched his heart. 

When children are in early grief, Jewett suggests there are several practical ways in which you can help them: 

  1. Use flannel bed sheets.  I recommend flannel pajamas, too.  Flannel has a calming and nurturing effect on children. 
  2. Play the radio softly as you put the children to bed.  Bedtime is often frightening for children in a quiet environment. 
  3. Serve foods that have a mushy, milky texture and are high in potassium – an essential stress combatant.  Jewett suggests mashed potatoes and applesauce.  I also recommend bananas. 
  4. Buy a watch for the child.  It provides him with a sense of control as he asks questions like, “What time are you coming home tonight?” 
  5. Give the child a house key.  Fear of abandonment may make it hard for children to be away from their parents.  By having house keys of their own, they will have a constant reminder that Mom or Dad will return.  Caution:  Children can lose their keys often.  Decorating them with ribbon will help. 

Phase 2: Acute Grief