Dealing in death
By Dr. Andrea Corn
Child, Adolescent and Family Psychologist
The youth sport years are spent cheering our children on, supporting their efforts, hugging them for their triumphs, and consoling them after a loss. These precious moments, reminisced with fondness, become unifying memories at family gatherings. Yet, these relations are forever changed with the passing of a child’s grandparent and oftentimes are even more painful when they had frequently attended the child’s sporting activities.
Death is never welcomed, but it’s inevitable, which is why it’s important to explain its meaning to your young athletes. You want your words to be comforting but also instructive. If left unaddressed, it opens your child’s mind to imagine all the unknowns: this could result in fears spiraling and interfering with your youngster’s ability to concentrate at school, on the sports field with teammates, or enjoying oneself with friends. That’s why you want to share facts but also keep it simple and age appropriate. For example, you could say:
→ The day we are born is our first day of life. Hopefully, we live a long life like ______, but a day will come when each of our lives end. But we expect that to be a very long time from now.
→ Your _________ has died, which means ________ can no longer be with us. When any person dies, their heart stops beating, nor are they walking, talking, or eating.
→ Even though ______ cannot be with us, we can keep them alive by sharing our memories, including them in our talks, and keeping them in our hearts and in our prayers.
→ Do welcome your child’s curiosity and questions as they need to be encouraged not discouraged. Don’t worry about not knowing every answer.
→ Focus on acknowledging your child’s feelings and interest about this complex subject. By empathizing with the emotions, your youngster will feel comforted and reassured. (This idea works equally well following a poor performance or loss). Whether your child has many questions, or just a few, chances are many can relate to the idea of comparing your reactions to the emotional distress felt by your child after losing a hard-fought game.
You are blessed if you had a close and loving relationship, despite the profound pain you feel. Don’t dismiss your feelings, because if you do, you could potentially make matters worse for yourself as well as your child, because you’ll inadvertently send the wrong message, which is that sadness shows weakness or should be ignored. Furthermore, your child may not understand your sorrow and think you are upset about his or her performance (no matter what occurred), creating a mistaken belief leading to confusion, doubt, or even anger. And, if such privately held beliefs remain unspoken and are not untangled, they could affect your child’s self-esteem, motivation, or confidence for years; especially since such irrational thoughts can heighten fears, doubts, or guilt. Concurrently, your child may also be struggling with his or her own feelings of sadness over not having his or her beloved grandparent present – yet may worry about upsetting you.
Do not confuse your child’s silence with not caring or disinterest. Some children’s silence reflects an inability to find the right words to say. Depending on your child’s age, he or she may be too young to fully comprehend this abstract word, even though it can be carelessly bantered about on playgrounds or spoken in cartoons. Subsequently, your child’s distress could be expressed through behaviors, such as complaining of stomach aches, having scary nightmares, or requesting to sleep in your bed.
During this period of mourning, your normal enthusiasm may be tempered, but try your best to show your delight attending your child’s athletic events. Eventually your pain and sorrow will start to lessen, so be patient with yourself. Yet, if your grief lingers and after several months your enjoyment remains diminished, then it’s likely other unresolved issues of loss are hindering your ability to be recover. If so, entering therapy is recommended so you can explore the causes of your suffering, along with learning strategies for healthy coping.
Here are three important tips to keep in mind:
1) Be mindful of your own reactions as your child will observe and possibly mimic you. Consider starting a conversation by saying, “I am still sad, but I know ______ would want me to put on a smile and do my very best today. I hope you will do the same.” Remind your young athlete that bad feelings are not forever, despite their immediate pain and discomfort.
2) Do explain to your young athlete that feelings are always going to be with us. Being happy, sad, angry or disappointed are what makes us human. Learning how to manage and handle them appropriately on and off the playing field are keys to self-mastery.
3) Try creating a ritual after each game whereby you imagine what __________might say following your youngster’s athletic event as a way of keeping _______ alive in your child’s mind, thereby preserving a loving bond.
If you start to be concerned that this family loss is affecting your child’s athletic or school performance (i.e., difficulty focusing or sustaining effort, becoming withdrawn and lonely, or increasingly angry and lashing out), then it would be best to seek professional help for your child.
Dr. Andrea Corn is a child, adolescent and family psychologist based in Boca Raton, Fla. She is also the co-author of Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports.
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