Never Too Young to Know: Death in Children's Lives
Phyllis Rolfe Silverman

Synopsis

This book is Silverman at her best, bringing together her diligence as a researcher, the insights of a skilled teacher and clinician, and the gentle stories of the mother/grandmother in a book that will serve the needs of children for generations to come.

The format brings important truths, helpful quotes, case examples (brief quotes rather than lengthy stories that keep us on focus and enable us to explore new perspectives) and well written observations that have us reading for insight, writing diligent notes, and, as the need presents itself, experiencing a measure of comfort and support. The book is packed with key sentences that are gems that all of us need to remember and respect. Several will be cited below. The chapters conclude with summary paragraphs so packed that they will be excellent teaching resources.

Growth was witnessed in the author. For example, Silverman gave considerable time and personal observation on the spiritual, religious and faith components of loss.In an earlier book she only mentioned the "philosophical." Silverman captured the heart of what faith (as defined by each person) means to them, and also captured the need (rightfully so) we have for support from our religious communities and the pain that accompanies congregations that disappoint us in various ways. She says it so well.

For many people, their relationship to their clergy is important, and they feel especially disappointed when their clergy are not helpful after a death. Clergy are not necessarily exempt from feeling uncomfortable in dealing with a death. Just as neighbors or friends sometimes seem to stay away or avoid conversations about the person who died, so do clergy. When these things happen, families often feel rejected and hurt, as if they have done something wrong because their loved one died. They may also feel stigmatized and angry. (p. 208, 209)

Above all, the book is about children and for those who are privileged to walk with them. The title says it clearly ... children are "never too young to know." The reality is that they do "know", at least with the meaning they claim and shape for themselves, but often feel additional burdens, wounds and victimization from the very adults meant to help them because of the adults' blindness from their own loss experiences or their refusal to grasp what is happening in the children.

In the opening portion of the book (p. 32ff), Silverman discusses grief as it effects all of us. She speaks in the language of transition, speaking of transition as "mapping the stress" as we find our way in this time of loss. The discussion includes "a new sense of self," "connecting to the deceased," and carefully expressed examples of the experience we call transition. "People respond to any loss over time, for it is with time that they mobilize and use their inner resources and the resources in the world around them." For children, quoting Baker and Sedney, we are reminded that, early on, children need to bring the experience of loss into their sense of reality. What is the story? What has happened? What does it mean? What will happen to me?

Silverman works hard to get us away from earlier definitions/prescriptions of grief, especially medical models that seem to suggest that grief is a diagnosis in need of treatment. She states her case well. I would only that, especially from the spiritual perspective, "healing" is still a valid and valuable word. It is not curing, but rather the experience of some measure of wholeness or integration that may be our first sense of movement or "transition." It also reminds us, as caregivers, that healing means that we are available to the whole story, not just focusing on physical claims or emotional outbursts.

The book is divided into three parts: "Making Meaning of Death & Grief," "Stories People Tell" and "On Helping." Throughout the book the loss experienced by a child is placed within the larger context of family (as experienced by that person) balanced by the individual needs of the child. This brilliant strategy on the part of the author places us in an observation point that says we are not isolating the child (as adults do), but tracking the child (children), adult(s) and their interaction as family. It is tracking the children and facilitating their expression and growth/learning, remembering that "the primary context in which children grow is that of the family." (p. 10).

The book discusses different types or circumstances surrounding loss, giving particular attention to the impact of the death of a parent, sibling loss or when a child is dying. In all three cases we have some of the best writing I have read in a long time. In the death of a parent we see the struggling surviving parent, reconfiguration of the family, interactions (often unhelpful) of other adults, the role of the school, where the child wanders and searches, and the children interacting as siblings, classmates and friends. The style of writing demands of us, as counselors (and other professionals) that we listen to the individual claims and cries of the child, but, by putting the child back into his/her context (family), we listen to all of the stories rather than increase the sense of burden, responsibility or isolation.

Sibling loss is a dynamic still much misunderstood or understated. Few books have been written, and too much focuses only on the death of young twins. I have encountered interesting counseling experiences with elderly sibling loss issues, including twins. Silverman articulates clearly the unique aspects of sibling loss.

An alphabetized listing of references is thorough. It is unfortunate that new publishing formats preclude rearranging this section into a topical format so that the reader can appropriate the information more effectively. There is a good reference section of programs and agencies and also helpful information for schools (including unique opportunities for parochial or religious schools).

To quote the author ... "Children need attention and support so they can learn to cope and deal with the changes that a death will bring to their lives. They need to feel legitimated and have a place to turn to for sharing, support, and guidance. Even adolescents who are trying out more independent roles and may protest their parents' interest as intrusion, need the support and attention of their families. If they are part of a working family system that has the flexibility to grow and change, children and young people will learn how to respond effectively to the stress caused by a death and to cope competently as they go through the experience of being alive." (p. 74)

Rev. Richard B. Gilbert, Executive Director The World Pastoral Care Center

 

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