How do kids with attachment problems grieve?

When my mother-in-law passed away, I had a chance to observe three different styles of grief in my adopted children.

admin March 11, 2014
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An adoptive grandma.

My husband’s mother.

My husband’s mother died last week.  She had spent a couple of months in a nursing home, so we were all expecting it, but I found it so interesting to watch how each of my kids handled it. The older two, who were eight and five when they were taken away from their birthparents, seemed almost impervious. My youngest, who was eight months when he went into foster care, was much more engaged in the process.

One incident occurred when I left the house quickly one day, telling the kids I had to get the car over to the nursing home to take Grandma to the Emergency Room because she was in so much pain. Just a few minutes after I left the house, my husband called to say an ambulance had been called for his mother, and they no longer needed our car. I returned home less than five minutes after I left, and neither of my two oldest children even asked me what had happened, or why I was back so soon.

My husband and I spent several nights in a row at the hospital and every time we left, my daughter would ask us to say “hi” to Grandma for her. When we would call home to check on things, however, she never asked how Grandma was doing. The only one who ever took an interest in how Grandma was doing day-to-day was my 8-year-old. He would ask about her every day and especially if we called home from the hospital.

The night Grandma died, my husband arrived home a few minutes before I did and told the kids. I arrived home soon after and the first thing my daughter said to me was, “Mom! Look at this cool jacket Mrs. W. gave me! It’s so soft, feel how soft and furry it feels inside.” I explained that since Grandma had just died, we were preoccupied with that right now.

My daughter looked at me a little irritatedly and said, “I know it’s sad.” I told her she was right, it was sad, but it was also taking all of our attention right now and if she wanted to show us the jacket, it would be better to wait until the next morning. She said “okay,” but I don’t think she really understood.

Several times over the next few days, I had to remind her that Grandma had just died, that we were all pretty busy planning the funeral and that this time was about Grandma, not about any of us right now.

My 15-year-old son took it well and seemed fine for about five days. Then he suddenly became spacey and unpleasant, a sure sign that something was bothering him. After some prodding, he said he guessed he was upset about Grandma. I asked him why it took him five days to become upset and he said it took him a while to process it. I believe that.

I asked him what he missed the most about her and he said talking to her. Now you would have to know my son to know how funny that sounded. He doesn’t talk much, and hardly ever talked to Grandma except when we made him say hello, good-bye, and thank-you. I pointed that out to him. He said, well, he guessed he missed that he COULD have talked to her someday.

I tried a different tack and asked him if her death made him feel less connected and more alone in the world. He said yes. I told him we all feel less connected and more alone, but that it probably hits him harder because of the early traumatic loss of his birth parents. I told him that he had been very young then, he didn’t have the Gospel in his life at that time, didn’t have our solid family behind him then, and didn’t have the emotional resources he has now for handling this loss. He brightened considerably and since then, has seemed his usual self.

The funeral was yesterday and all my kids were appropriately sad. My 15-year-old son said he had thought he could keep himself from crying but he hadn’t been able to. I told him that was because he had a heart and that we had all cried.

Tonight, however, my daughter was back to impervious or maybe just oblivious. I asked her to make the school lunches tomorrow to help Dad, and she threw a royal fit. “I don’t want to make the lunches!” and stormed off to her room.

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that my 8-year-old is connected enough to have empathy for Grandma, and for us. My 15-year-old didn’t know how to process the loss for several days, so didn’t, and when he finally did, his behavior deteriorated. When I helped him identify what was bothering him, and reassured him that he has the emotional resources he needs to handle loss in a healthy way, he adjusted. My poor daughter, who is much more attachment-impaired than her brothers, has had only fleeting moments of understanding. I can’t even really call them moments of empathy because I don’t think she has the capacity to put herself in anyone else’s shoes.

I know she will feel bad later when she calms down about the school lunches. But I don’t think she has yet made the connection that we all need to take care of Dad a little bit right now. The next time an opportunity comes up to take something off Dad’s plate, I think she will have to learn the lesson the hard way all over again. I know learning is very difficult with drug-exposed kids, but I have to hope that over time she will learn to put others ahead of herself, even a little.

Photo credit: Donna V.

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