Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy in Dublin

(I wrote this post in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic loss of my friend, Aidan Lynam, in a motorcycle accident in May 2015.)

Aidan Lynam’s work was for children and parents dealing with critical issues, so perhaps it’s appropriate to offer some advice to parents trying to explain the news of Aidan’s sudden death this week.

Try to use ordinary language, not hiding behind half-truths or wonderful metaphors: “Aidan has died”, not ‘gone away’.

Make it clear that we are all mortal, that death is a fact, not a myth, not un-doable. Unfortunately children are surrounded by messages that tell them otherwise, so you’ll have to gently but firmly reinforce this fundamental truth.

Listen for what they understand and beware of confusion: ‘sick’ or ‘hospital’ does not mean ‘dead’ or ‘death’.

Talk a little, listen a lot. Check that the child understands what you’ve told them by asking what it is they think you’ve said and also by listening to their play or their chat to others. Or their Facebook, texts, WattsApp if they’re teens!

Use age-appropriate language. Children will respond at their level of understanding and switch off from you when they reach the limit of their understanding. Watch out for that blank look or glazing over of their eyes, stop and wait. Come back later, over pizza or tucking them in.

Let them know they can come back any time to ask a question, to clarify anything. Let them know you’re strong enough for and welcome the discussion of these strong feelings.

Model your feelings. Let them know you’re sad. Let them know that feelings, if expressed and shared, pass from being overwhelming to tolerable.

Reassure the child that they are not responsible for the death. That may sound odd, but children manage the world by believing that they control it. So they may try to construct a narrative that makes them responsible for the situation. Listen carefully and be clear: “It’s an accident.”

If you’re religious, explain your belief system to the child and share your beliefs honestly. Again, this offers children a set of words to articulate overwhelming fears and anxieties. We all understand what Heaven means, even if we don’t all believe in it (all the time).

Reassure the child that their own parents are safe and that they love them and that there will always be adults in a broad, ever-expanding support network to protect them. Go through the list: Mum, Dad, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather..; family, school, church, Scouts… Maybe play a game: how many adults can we assemble in this network, in what order of substitution: if granny dies then…

This was a special man with a special audience. He will be missed by children with Down Syndrome and their parents, so here’s a word to these families.

Children with special needs often think it’s ‘bad’ to have ‘bad’ feelings like sadness and the anger that is a fundamental reaction to grief. So model your own feelings, name them and describe them (sadness, denial, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance). Explain that your actions (crying, turning away, becoming inarticulate at times) are a process, a working-through. Mark the times when you need comfort and when you’re feeling stronger, able to comfort. You’ll teach your children not to be afraid to be human, which is to be mortal. (I can send colouring sheets that might help.)

As the bottle says, “Rinse and repeat”. This is a life lesson; it’s learned over and over. Grief brings up every past experience of grief. In this way, we learn acceptance anew each time, whatever our age.

If your child was there that day or at the scene of any other trauma, make it clear to them that you are glad they were not hurt, that they survived when perhaps someone else didn’t.

We don’t clearly understand the consequences of serious injury or the finality of death until we are quite old. So young people – children and adolescents – may fantasise that they ‘should’ have died, rather than the other person, out of a mistaken belief that their death and injury can be magically undone later – like on TV or in Disney movies.

Make it absolutely clear you are glad they’re alive and that their life and wellbeing is supremely important to you, until they can assume that responsibility themselves.

Books that help – select an age appropriate one: Heegard, M. (1991) ‘When Someone Very Special Dies – Children can Learn to Cope with Grief’ Minneapolis, MN: Woodland Press. Badger’s parting Gifts, Susan Varley. Jostein Gardner, The Frog Castle Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, any book with Death as a character. Michael Rosen’s ‘The Sad Book’

Videos: ‘Up’, ‘The Lion King’ Plays: Hamlet