I was relieved to learn the other day that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had set into motion plans to retire their performing elephants, removing the gentle beasts from their shows by 2018. I have never enjoyed watching the elephants at the circus; instead of applauding their lumbering feats, marveling at their dexterity in spite of bulk, I always worried whether the elephants liked what they were being asked to do. As it happens, of all animal life, the elephant is remarkably similar to we humans. With a brain mass larger than humans, and a cortex containing as many neurons as ours, elephants live in matriarch-led families, and only separate from each other upon death or capture. They grieve the loss of loved ones, much as do humans, standing for days by the side of a dead elephant, and have been known to walk tens of miles to pay their respects to humans they loved.
But just as we watched their circus performances, wondering if they enjoyed performing the stunts, the elephant never speaks to us of what it feels. In that way, elephants remind me of grieving children.
We can watch elephants in both natural and captive environments, and note their playfulness and compassion, how they support members of their families who are sick and weak. Elephants are demonstrative beings, and research indicates that they are empathetic, responding to other elephants’ pain, trying to help. We can watch children who have lost loved ones, but children, like elephants, may not be able to communicate their feelings, not because they cannot speak, but because they don’t know how to say it. We assume that children are resilient and will heal. But people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and end up saying nothing, essentially ignoring death.
That’s because American society, as a whole, has a “Get over it” approach to death, loss, and grief.
It stems from a belief that it’s better to get back to work, to return to our everyday lives, and in so doing, the pain of loss will ease, desensitized by the familiarity of our usual tasks. But according to Dr. Debby Baker, a clinical psychologist who has stepped up to the plate to help create a nonprofit Community Grief Center to serve children and their families in Weld County and Northern Colorado, “Culturally, people expect you to return to ‘normal’, but it will only be a ‘new normal’ because you never go back to the way you were. People will dismiss it, saying ‘it’s just an emotional thing,’ but those emotions affect us, physically and mentally.”
Instead of telling us how they are in pain from a loss, be it loss of a parent, sibling, friend, or even pet, children will act out, experience health issues, undergo depression, and engage in self-harm. Bereaved children demonstrate 7 significant differences from their non-bereaved peers:
Dr. Baker says that, over the last three decades the number of children, teens and young adults suffering from unresolved grief are five times more likely to complete suicide, have a nine times greater likelihood of dropping out of high school, are ten times more likely to engage in substance abuse, and have a twenty times greater chance of having behavioral disorders. Because 1 in 5, or 20 percent, of children will experience the death of someone close to them by the time they reach age 18, unaddressed grief has longterm effects on our society.
Providing a safe place for children to learn how to address and channel grief helps healing, and encourages them to reinvest in life.
International programs such as The Dougy Center, based in Oregon, and Judi’s House in Denver, Colorado, have taken on the challenge of teaching children how to cope with drastic life changes, along with concurrent adult programs for those childrens’ caregivers. These peer-group programs address the needs of grieving children: providing information, discussing fears and anxieties, giving reassurance that they are not to blame, that their actions were not the cause of the death, and handling survival guilt. Most importantly, there is listening, validating the survivor’s feelings, and allowing those feelings to exist. The group environment offers shared stories and mutual support from other kids. They come to understand they are not alone in suffering, that there are others dealing with similar pain. No longer feeling isolated from others of their age, they can heal. These facilities offer their services free of charge, garnering support from private donations. The planned Community Grief Center in Weld County will operate similarly.
Like the elephant, human grief centers on love, and recognition that it is acceptable to experience what is painful, and remember those who have passed from our lives. The elephant may not be able to conceptualize a loss as we humans do, but it understands that the loved one is gone. Through grief programs, children learn that remembering lost loved ones, and cherishing memory, is part of life. That loss will always exist, but they can once again participate in their own future. In grieving, we honor those whom we love, and in so doing, continue to love them for the rest of our lives.
And that is why grief is good, Charlie Brown.
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @. Life inspired. Vodka tempered.