On Friday, September 18, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87 of metastatic pancreatic cancer. In her rich life as a legal activist for gender and women’s rights, she dealt with multiple cancer diagnoses and treatments as well as other difficult health issues. She became a popular culture icon due to her persistence and work ethic: the “Notorious RBG” who inspired so many of us to work for change, raise our voices, and never give up hope. Her death is a loss for the country, and for many of us individually. We are mourning. We are grieving. Notorious RBG’s death is a deeply felt loss.
I have been reflecting on how to write about grief and loss since my father’s death from glioblastoma (a brain cancer) in 2017. Our relationship was strained: throughout my life, we struggled to communicate; we were on opposite sides of politics and religion; I feared his outbursts of anger; he didn’t know how to nurture my fire. Three days before his death, I learned of my own breast cancer diagnosis. I never told him. I had kept so much inside: all the times I cried myself to sleep, wishing we got along better; how much I needed more than he could give, that I wanted to forgive him for scaring me. But we left so much unsaid. I wrote him a letter after the funeral and buried it. I looked up at the sky and watched the birds fly. I wondered if he could feel any of my broken and ragged feelings. Or if he could care after death. Or if being gone is the end, and nothing remains.
How can I have such different reactions to these two deaths–Ruth Bader Ginsburg and my father’s? How can I love someone I didn’t know and struggle with someone I knew so well? What will help me through?
So many questions.
When we grieve.
When we have lost.
If we struggle as adults through our emotions, how do children process theirs? How can we talk with children in grief, during loss? It is a scary question, because we don’t know the impact our words will have. We definitely can’t make the lost one come back. And we can’t magically make everything better. There will be strong, uncomfortable feelings, and we don’t know how long they will last.
As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
The Eluna Network has been serving children and families for over 20 years through grief and addiction. Their resources are a wonderful place to start. For teens, also visit Teenage Grief Sucks. TGS offer these reminders:
Things are hard right now, but they won’t always be that way.
None of this is your fault.
You are not alone. We are going through this too.
Let yourself grieve. Feel your feelings.
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
You don’t have to be okay right now.
Family Activities during Grief and Loss
Here are a few creative activities from Art with Heart to do as a family while we are grieving. Their webpage has full activity descriptions and reflection questions.
How Do You Feel? Draw a series of emotion faces and talk about how our bodies show those emotions. You can draw them as human faces, your favorite animal, or an imaginary creature or monster. Then talk about things that happened today, and this week. Point to an emotion face that matches the feeling you had in that moment.
Best Day Ever. Draw what your best day ever looks like. Use glue to trace the outlines. Let the glue dry. Press aluminum over the drawing, and rub it so the glue underneath stands up. Use markers to color on the aluminum foil. How does thinking about and creating a scene of our best day help us feel better?
Feeling Words. Divide a piece of paper into four sections. Pick four feeling words. Write each one in crayon really big in its section. Use watercolor to paint and watch how the paint glides over the wax. Talk about how our feelings are like the wax and like the watercolor.
Move Like Our Feelings. Revisit one of the artworks you made about feelings. Put on music and dance like different emotions. Use fabric. Pose. Make a face.
That Day. Divide a piece of paper into four sections. Write or draw a story about a hard day or a day when a big change happened. Talk about how you feel after writing the story, and how things have changed/stayed the same since that day.
10 Things Grieving Children Want You to Know. Eluna Network.
Developmental Grief Responses and Ways to Help. Eluna Network.
Ocean of Emotion. Eluna Network and Art with Heart.
Seven Suggestions for Explaining Death to Children. Eluna Network.
Evolving Emotions of Grief: Art Journal Activity. What’s Your Grief?
When a Child Has Lost a Parent to Cancer. American Cancer Society.
Sharon Chappell, PhD, is the Executive and Artistic Director of Well Beings Studio. She is a teacher, breast cancer survivor, parent and artist.