"I'm just not a boo-hoo person": differing reactions to bereavement.
We had a bereavement in our family last week. My father-in-law sadly died after a prolonged period of illness in hosiptal. My children have not had a close family member die
before, and I was apprehensive about telling them, remembering how sad I was when my own grandparents died.
I told my son first, as he would be there when his grandma arrived that afternoon. His response was a very calm "yes, I thought that might happen" (he had known his grandpa was ill). I was a bit thrown and asked him if he wanted a hug - he said "ok" and gave me a little pat on the back. I reassured him it was fine to feel sad and be upset, to which he replied: "the thing is mummy, I'm just not a boo-hoo kind of person" and off he want to carry on playing on his computer. Right. Not what I was expecting, but fair enough.
In the following week we saw no obvious signs of sadness about the bereavcment, but we did start to see some "distressed" behaviours (in other words he was getting angry with us a lot). When I spoke to him about it in a calm moment he said that he as struggling with having his grandma staying with us all week (after his Dad already being away for to days). Change and upheaval to his everyday life were the things he was finding hard.
This is not to say he d0esn't care about his grandpa. It is really important to remember that autistic people often process, recognise and display their emotions in different ways to non-autistic people. They are not uncaring, but rather, can sometimes find it a challenge to understand their own emotions and to know how to react to them. Autistic people have also reported that: their reaction to the bereavement may come much later; it may cause them to lose executive functioning (finding it harder to plan and concentrate); or they may experience an increase in "autistic traits" like increased meltdowns and shutdowns (1). There's not a lot out there around supporting autistic people with bereavement but I did find a great video by Purple Ella which I would really recommend if you're going through this yourself.
When I told my neurotypical daughter about her grandpa she cried, then asked how her granny was. I had bought her a book called 'The Memory Tree' by Britta Teckentrup which is a lovely gentle story about a fox dying and his friends remembering him. We read this together and she then subsequently re-read it herself several times, getting a lot from it. My son could not see the point of this book, as grandpa wasn't a fox!
Two children in the same family have had totally different responses. One way isn't better than the other, and as a wise friend (who is also an autism expert) said to me "you don't get more points for more tears". So we must try not to judge people's feelings by how they display them outwardly. Some people just aren't "boo-hoo people" - but that doesn't mean that they don't care.
(1) NAS article about bereavement:
(2) Purple Ella's video about autism and bereavement: