Help me help my favourite person.
May 26, 2016 10:36 AM   Subscribe

How can I help a young child who has recently lost a parent?

My nephew is five years old. He is normally a very sweet, thoughtful little boy, but he is rebelling a bit now and it's definitely related to some bad things that happened to him very recently. My brother and nephew live in Ontario and the rest of our family (including me) live in Newfoundland.

My brother and his wife separated last summer and moved into separate apartments, sharing custody of my nephew 50/50. They co-parented wonderfully and were very good friends even though they were no longer a couple. One day in early April, my brother was supposed to drop his son to my sister-in-law's house but couldn't reach her by phone or text. She had been feeling unwell the night before, so he was worried. He left my nephew with a neighbour (thankfully) and went to check on her and found her dead. Her death was related to an existing medical issue but it was still sudden and unexpected. She was only 34 years old. We all loved her dearly and are still devastated.

The next few weeks were very busy. My parents flew to Ontario to be with my brother and nephew and help with the funeral arrangements. A week after she died, everyone came home to NL for the visitation and funeral. After that, my folks went back to Ontario with them to help my brother settle his wife's affairs. When that was done, they left again.

For the last few weeks, my brother and my nephew have been living their new normal. At first it seemed okay, but I think the gravity of the situation is really starting to hit them hard. My brother is feeling overwhelmed by being a single dad 100 percent of the time. I worry that he hasn't had time to grieve properly because he's focused on making sure his child is doing okay. Even though they have wonderful friends and family up there who are helping him out, at the end of the day, it's just the two of them now.

Compounding this difficult situation is my nephew's recent behavior. My nephew and two of his friends got in trouble at school the other day for bullying another child. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Nephew got a stern talking to from his dad, who is desperately trying to make his son realize that this behavior is not okay and not wanting to come down too hard on him in light of recent events. His LEGO was taken away for a few days (that's a huge deal for this kid). The boys involved are going to be monitored closely by the teachers and principal. My brother had a chat with the principal (who by all accounts sounds wonderful) and assured her that such behavior would not be tolerated and that whatever action she needed to take at school, he would back her up. We had hoped for some improvement, but no. Today, my nephew got in trouble at school again. Apparently the vice principal gave him a note to bring home to his dad and he ripped it up and threw it on the ground. Again, this is completely unlike him, but I'm not surprised given all the loss and big changes he has been through lately.

I'm heading up to visit them tomorrow. I'm very close with both of them even though I live far away. Please note this question is not about seeking professional help. My brother is pursuing that option already for himself and his child. I just want to know how to talk to my nephew about his mommy and his recent bad behavior. This kid loves and trusts me and I want to make sure I'm the best and most supportive auntie I can be right now. What can I do to help them both while I'm up there? And how do I continue to support them after I come back home?
posted by futureisunwritten to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to contact the Liz Logelin Foundation, or check their resources. The founder, Matt Logelin, is a single dad who lost his wife 24 hours after their daughter was born, and he created a foundation to help new widow and widower parents dealing with the same thing.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:42 AM on May 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

I don't know what words to offer. If you can encourage family therapy in a safe way, I would do that. But what I wanted to say, as the parent of some complicated kids, is that I would encourage his dad to take him to a doctor and see if anything can be diagnosed and whether a referral to a psychiatrist can be put in place. Then I would ask the doctor to write a letter outlining the medical diagnosis and the need for support at school. More thorough diagnoses and supports can be outlined when the psychiatrist sees the boy. What this initial paperwork can do is help establish human rights protection in education and entitle the school to funding and supports, so that they can better help the boy. Next year, I imagine he will be in Grade 1, which has more demands than kindergarten. Many little boys have trouble with the transition and a child potentially struggling with trauma, adjustment disorder, relational changes, emotional dysregulation and more may need extra supports at school. It sounds like you have a caring and informed school, but even just a visit to the family doctor, a referral for services (many psychiatrists now do therapy and don't just prescribe) and a letter can help establish supports now, because schools have to make decisions about supports for September now. I'm in BC, but I imagine Ontario is very similar. The boy spends 6 hours a day at school. This letter can also help establish supports for after school care, too, in case he acts out there - there is a duty to accommodate if there's a medical challenge/disability.

I don't want to sound like I am pathologizing a kid. Far from it. But he's going through some very difficult stuff and framing it as a medical need can help establish supports. In fact, if there is a documented medical problem, there are charities that can offer grants for family therapy and psychological services, so that his dad doesn't have to pay out of pocket. Or a behavioural interventionist could provide support and respite for dad.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:46 AM on May 26, 2016

Caveat: I am a mom but I have no idea what I am talking about.
I think it sounds like the Dad and the school are on top of the discipline issues and probably what the kid needs from you the most is just pure love and support.
It would probably be really nice to hear outright, verbally and in a letter or book that the dad can reread to the kid, that he is your favorite little person. What a gift it could be for him to know that he is still an A+ #1 all-star to you, now that someone else who shared that opinion is sadly gone.
Surrounding him with love and making sure he knows that you think he is the greatest would be sweet and reassuring.
Take him out alone (if Dad says its ok) and do fun special things just the two of you like getting ice cream for dinner or looking at animals and giving them all new names in a pet store. Get him out of the stressful zone he might be in and have a light fun time to give him and your brother a break.
posted by rmless at 10:52 AM on May 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

I think that, for the short term, what this kid needs is some unconditional love. It sounds like he's got some sadness and anger balled up inside of him and he's lacking a safe outlet for them.

I think that you should consider not talking to him about his bad behavior. He has his dad and the school to ride his ass about that. Just be there, and be the fun auntie, and let him talk about his mother if he wants and don't bring it up if he doesn't. And let's be clear that I am positive that his dad loves him unconditionally -- it's just that it doesn't necessarily look that way to a 5 year old who is being disciplined.

If he acts out towards you (which wouldn't surprise me -- it sounds like he's testing boundaries), deflect/ignore what you can, and pull away if necessary (Hey kid, it's not fun for me if you throw rocks, so I'm going to go inside...). It's his dad's and his school's job to teach him appropriate behavior and make sure he shows it -- for now maybe you can just be a safe adult for him to just be him.

I'm sorry for your loss -- sounds like your nephew is lucky to have you in his life!
posted by sparklemotion at 10:53 AM on May 26, 2016 [18 favorites]

I was going to say what sparklemotion said - allow him his anger. Just be with it if you can. Be present. Be a safe space.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:55 AM on May 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

This might not be what you're looking for. But speaking as a reluctant kid-magnet this is my suggestion:

I think he probably just needs to have fun with someone he can trust. I think you should take him for a day out doing something fun e.g. ice cream / movie / going for lunch. Just have fun!! Make laughter and fun your aim. Be non-judgmental, and if he decides to speak up, give him space to talk. Again, you must file away your judgmental adult thoughts away for the day!! If he doesn't say anything then let it be. There's no good in forcing open an unripe avocado.

I think he sounds like he has been going through a dark and serious time lately. Maybe he just needs a break from that from his cool aunt! Just laugh and mess around with him. Perhaps tell him some of your own stories to break the ice.

He's lucky to have such a caring and responsible aunt. Good luck! :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 11:01 AM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Whether now or down the road, make sure he knows he can talk about his mom (in addition to anything else) with you whenever he wants - good, bad, sad, funny, whatever - that it's perfectly normal to want to talk and tell stories about her even though she's not here, because his memory of her is still going to be a presence in his life.
posted by sallybrown at 11:01 AM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

It won't help immediately, but you could order him a copy of Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute?, which was written by a widow whose children were very small when their Dad died. When she couldn't find any resources for small kids, she wrote her own based on their experiences. It takes the kid through what death means, how to deal with sadness, being afraid of your other parent dying, etc. By all accounts it's pretty useful for little people in this situation.

Here's a previous comment of mine in a similar thread - you might find the whole thread useful. I'm sorry for your family's loss.
posted by penguin pie at 11:05 AM on May 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

The discipline is handled, so you get to love and spoil him. School should be out soon, can he come to visit with you in NL? Can you do cool stuff? Hiking, fishing, camping, petting enormous, indigenous dogs.

I might broach the subject of mom by saying, "I'm so sad about your Mom, she was my friend and I miss her a lot." One reason kids get angry is because with a loss this huge it seems like the world should stop and it doesn't. Compound that with people being uncomfortable talking about the person who died and it seems that people are trying to forget this awesome, important person and it's infuriating!

He's only five and he doesn't have the wherewithal to parse his emotions all he knows is that he has FEELS. So expressing YOUR feelings and allowing him to see you sad can model appropriate behavior. That it's okay to be sad, and to talk about the person who died and that you're allowed to be angry.

Tell him how much you love him, and let him know that there will ALWAYS be people in your family who will be here to take care of him and make sure he's okay.

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:05 AM on May 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

He's externalizing all the grief that you all feel. Yes, the dad and school do need to continue placing (gentle) boundaries on him, but make sure that his acting out does not become the sole focus/black sheep of the situation. As the aunt, I don't think you should get involved at all in the discipline issue, honestly. It's far too easy to focus on the thing that seems clear and in your face (kid acting out) as a way to be able ignore what is actually happening (loss and grief).
posted by yarly at 11:15 AM on May 26, 2016

My father died when I was 7. It remains the worst thing that has happened to me by a factor of about a gazillion. What made it unimaginably harder was that no one talked to me about human feelings and how they work (probably because I was left to be raised by wolves, but that's a story for another day).

I'm guessing your nephew is pretty baffled by his behavior. And is certainly swamped everyday by the intensity of his emotions. I'm guessing that it would be such a relief to him to hear that, while it is not nice to bully a classmate, it is totally normal to act out when we have huge feelings and haven't yet learned how to deal with them. Right now he's getting the message that he's being willfully bad. Help him see that he's not bad. And then give him other ways to process his grief.

Right now he feels like the only person to have ever gone through this. His whole world (including the internal one) is alien to him. Help normalize it for him.
posted by mcduff at 11:31 AM on May 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

I'm just asking how I, as an extended family member can talk to him about his mommy and make life easier for both of them during my short visit.

Short term, you can say you miss his mommy and tell him something she once said about him. A wonderful watercolor, a day they went to the park. Let him know that his mom used to tell such great stories about him.

You can promise him that there will always be people who love him and will take care of him forever.

Long term, be one of those people. Check in on him as he grows, when he's a terrible teen, when he starts college. Just be there for the long haul.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:10 PM on May 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am so sorry for your loss. This little boy losing his mommy at 5 is heartbreaking.
I think I've said this a few times on mefi, but my family uses FaceTime and Skype to stay in touch with long-distance loved ones. Having twice-weekly, scheduled video calls keeps my kids in almost surprisingly close relationships. At five, does he like to color or draw? You could draw together over FaceTime. Or have a daily face time call where you talk to him while he eats his afternoon snack. Bake him cookies and send them once a week, subscribe to a comic and read it to him when it arrives each month.
For your visit, I think kids sometimes like planning activities more than the event itself. Start chatting with him now about a fun place you want to go with him, maybe plan special snacks to eat that day, funny outfits, etc. Don't over promise, but give him something fun to look forward to and be sure to deliver. It's like how my daughter enjoys planning her birthday cake much more than eating the cake. She can talk about different cake flavors for days! Basically, the best thing you can do is be a constant, fun presence in his daily life. And as others pointed out, don't be afraid to talk to him about his mom and his feelings. I know you asked "how" to do this, but I don't know if there is a how. I think it will be hard, but find a way to talk about her and don't worry if you cry in front of him. Maybe write down a few nice memories you have of her and if you're really sad or anxious, excuse yourself and look at your notes for a reminder of things you can say.
I feel for you. Good luck.
posted by areaperson at 12:12 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

This happened to one of my close friends: his ex-wife died very suddenly a couple of years ago, which he only discovered when he dropped off their 16-year-old at the house, and got a phone call from the police minutes later telling him to come back there to collect his son, who'd found his mother's body. That was a fun day.

I'm auntie to this kid, so I told him I'd be happy to listen if he wanted to talk about it, or if not, we could just hang out and play video games and watch stuff on YouTube (his favorite things ever). Some days he wanted to talk about it; most days he didn't. He just needed attention and love (and patience for endless hours of watching the same freaking lame videos). Last Friday he came over and we played Diablo III together while sitting on my couch. We play Hearthstone together on our phones often, as a way to connect when we're not in the same space.

You've gotten some great advice upthread about what to do when you're there. Once you're home, maybe some FaceTime or Skyping with your nephew would be good? Some game you can play together when you're not physically together, that takes the pressure off emotionally, but is still something to bond over?

The one thing that's absolutely NOT gone over well with my friend's son is when other grownups make a big production number of Here I Am Counseling You In Your Time of Grief, Look At How Empathetic I Am. Especially when the grownups in question didn't have two words for him when his mother was alive. (That's totally not your situation; just be ready for some resentment of anything that remotely smacks of that from other adults.)
posted by culfinglin at 12:12 PM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

This sort of thing seems well within the range of normal behavior for a 5-year-old who has just lost a parent.

It might be a good idea to talk to his pediatrician about a referral for a therapist where he can let out some of the big feels in a nonjudgmental/nonparental environment.

I second the recommendation to love-bomb him and offer him unstructured time to be together and noodle around. Barbara Kingsolver called this "cow time" in one of her essays in High Tide in Tucson and the phrase has always stuck with me.

I also agree with modeling some ways he can express his grief by talking about things you miss about his mother.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 1:09 PM on May 26, 2016

I was 6 when my father died. It was a truly godawful time. Ditto mcduff's first paragraph above.

Recently I was told the story by an adult who was there (i.e., next door neighbor at the time) that, when my brother, who was 4, arrived at the funeral home, he wanted to know why his daddy was put in a box. The neighbor, who I think of as a virtual aunt, took him home to stay with my mother's mother and my 2 year old sister. On the other hand, the 6 year old who "seemed to be 6 going on 13," seemed to understand and was going nowhere. I remember that funeral as if it were yesterday, and it was a very, very unhappy time.

Now, as much as I was a strangely precocious kid, I was still 6. And the gaps from 4 to 5 and 5 to 6 are a big leaps in terms of development, whatever else might be going on.

Related to what I'm going to say next, both my sister and brother as adults recalled their earliest emotion as Fear: my sister has claimed that, as a child, she was petrified all the time, but never understood why.

Also, I am not a psychiatrist / psychologist; I am not your psychiatrist / psychologist; I am not the child's psychiatrist / psychologist; this is not psychiatric / psychological advice.

This may be what is going on with this little boy:

His mother has died, but for him this means that, all of a sudden -- poof! -- she has disappeared into a box and then into the ground (or up a flue). Why did she leave him? Was it something he did? How dare she abandon him? Will Daddy go next? Will he? Will he wind up all alone in the world with no one to take care of him? Where is his Mommy? Why won't she come back? He wants her, and wants to be with her, and cannot possibly -- due to an immature brain combined with insufficient life experience (being only 5) -- fathom what has happened or what to do about it.

And this translates, I think, into a raging morass of Fear, Anger, Grief, Sadness, Loneliness and the gods only know what else. Shear unadulterated terror?

So the adults in the environment have to make him feel loved, safe, and all around cared for. He needs space to cry, to rage, to be confused, to -- and, yes it's OK -- laugh, to talk, to be a kid.

It needs to somehow be communicated that some days he'll feel really bad and other days somewhat better. The adults need to understand that things will progress at whatever pace they do. There are no rules in this regard.

And this: None of us are really ever completely dead until no one remembers us anymore. It's just that, when we're dead, we're not here in the normal, conventional sense of being physically solid and present. But we can be visited in dreams. So maybe the little boy can come to see sleep time as dream time when he can visit his mom?

(This is not a religious perspective (I'm an atheist), but a "the world is not what it seems" one.)

(I'm not sure I should post this, but I'll do it anyway.)
posted by cool breeze at 1:46 PM on May 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

Much of my advice is for the father: This kid doesn't need discipline, because he's not a natural bully. He's going through a tough time, and doesn't have a natural outlet for his outsized feelings. Just the label "bully" can make school personnel act differently, and I'd hope that he'd instead be labeled "grieving" and treated in that vein.

Perhaps this is a good time to pull him from school and let him set his own priorities for a while. When my husband left me and my daughter, amidst much trauma, the two things that most helped her (she was 11 at the time) were taking two months off school to go away and explicitly connect with each other and establish what a family of two felt like, and getting her a puppy. We tried therapy, but she just did not want to talk about her feelings. I imagine a five-year-old boy would have even more trouble with talk therapy, or even play therapy, but having a puppy would be just amazing for him. And it's 24/7, not once a week for an hour.

Dad probably can't take two months off of work, but could he take two weeks? Could they go some place new, so that what they're doing together is special and totally lacking the pressure that comes from being at home where things need to be done?

The puppy was the best thing I could have done for my kid, and I am so glad that I did this for her. She gets unconditional love, she has some not-overwhelming responsibility for the dog to take her mind off her own needs, she has someone to talk to who never judges or tells anyone else, and she gets a lot of attention for having such a cute dog (nice to be noticed) but it's unrelated to the sad thing that happened in her life (nice to not have to deal with how other people feel, or think she should feel).

Could you help facilitate any of that for them?
posted by Capri at 2:37 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Bereaved Families of Ontario (I was involved with the Toronto branch) is a fantastic resource and they have group therapy for kids who have lost parents and support for widowers and parents as well as some one on one support. I would really, really recommend you have him hook up with them.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:21 PM on May 26, 2016

Whoops, sorry, reading comprehension fail. I agree with the love-bombing!
posted by warriorqueen at 9:22 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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