When Children Grieve

March 19, 2009

Until recently most psychologists thought that toddlers were too young to grieve. They can’t even talk yet, they argued. And they certainly don’t understand the meaning of death or divorce.

It’s true. Toddlers don’t understand death. Young children are famous for making silly statements like, “I want to go visit Daddy in heaven.” Or asking, “Is Grandpa hungry in his grave?”

That’s because toddlers are just beginning to understand that people still exist when they can’t see them. In their young minds, when Mommy walks out of the room she literally disappears–only to magically reappear later. No wonder they don’t comprehend the finality of death. In fact, most children are 7 or 8 years old before they realize that death is permanent. But that doesn’t mean toddlers don’t grieve.

“A young child’s greatest fear is abandonment,” says Dr. Diane Komp, a pediatric oncologist at Yale University School of Medicine and author of the book Images of Grace (Zondervan). When a child loses a primary caregiver, such as a parent, through death or divorce they feel abandoned. Sadly, few parents realize that toddlers also grieve a parent’s extended absence. To them it’s as though that parent has died.

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Find Faith in a Cancer Ward

February 25, 2009

In the early years of her practice, Dr. Diane Komp reported to the bedside of dying children out of duty. But one day the scene that followed changed her life. Just before seven-year-old Anna died, she mustered the strength to sit up in bed and cry: “The angels–they’re so beautiful! Mommy, can you see them? Do you hear their singing? I’ve never heard such beautiful singing!” Then she lay back on her pillow and died, reports Komp in her book Images of Grace (Zondervan).

Anna’s vision was the first of many such supernatural visitations that Dr. Komp witnessed at the bedside of dying children. Although Komp was an atheist at the time, the children’s dreams and visions forced her to reexamine the faith she had discarded while she was in medical school.

Surely dying children have no agenda, thought Komp, no reason to deceive me. They simply report what they see. They are, Komp reasoned, reliable witnesses.

That was more than thirty years ago. Today, thanks to progress in cancer treatments, fewer children die of cancer. But the miracle of children–and their families–finding peace with God has not diminished.

Diane Komp is known for her remarkable insights on life, insights she says she learned from the children she treats. “When I listen to kids I get much more sensible answers than when I listened to adults. So I listen to their stories, then write them down. I’m just the secretary,” says Komp, with a grin.

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Advice For Single Parents

January 14, 2009

How to Build Strong Families

Like a bad dream I can’t forget, I will always remember the stomach flu that struck me the first year I was a single mom. Waves of nausea rolled over me that morning. I lay perfectly still trying to shake the nausea then tried to ease out of bed without waking my daughter. But she spotted me anyway. She was eight months old–old enough to stand in her crib and call for Mommy, her chubby arm reaching through the rails of her crib. But too young to understand that Mommy was about to lose last night’s dinner. Young enough to still be breast-feeding, but too old to stay put. It was my worse nightmare.

In between bouts of vomiting I tried to find someone–anyone–who could come and watch her so I could lie still and sleep. But it was hard for my twenty-something single friends to fathom the depths of my agony. Finally, a friend said she could spare a few hours in the afternoon. Her smiling face on my doorstep, later that day was the best thing I’d seen in years.

Single parenting has its black moments. But it also has its moments of intense joy–when the sheer delight of motherhood out shines the darkest days. The love we feel for our children compels us to persevere. And when our children spontaneously return that love, our hearts sing.

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