5 ways to help your child with grief
When death strikes a family, everyone is affected, and the closer you are to the deceased, the harder it is to take in the reality that they are really gone. When you love so deeply, it seems like the price you pay for loving so much is the pain you experience when they’ve gone.
Now, imagine loving as openly, deeply and readily as a child. Children’s love comes naturally and unconditionally. It’s the kind of love that most adults wish they could reflect in their own lives. But, just like with adults, children feel the sharp separation of death very acutely. When children grieve, the height with which they loved becomes a mirror opposite depth that can stay with them for the rest of their lives. As the adult, we fight to deal with the death of a loved one, and now we also face the challenge of helping a little one come to grips with what death is, and how to handle it. It’s never easy, but these tips can be of some help.
Don’t beat around the bush
Adults see death as something harsh and sharp, so we try to soften the blow by using words like “passed” or “gone” when speaking to children. In reality, children need words like “death” and “dead” to better understand the situation. Be truthful and let the child know that the loved one is dead and how they died, even in the case of suicide or overdose. Children will learn what happened eventually, so it’s best to be honest from the beginning. Some children will ask a lot of questions, and some will only ask a few, but keep your answers simple (one or two sentences) and hopefully you won’t dig yourself in deeper than you meant.
Children process differently than adults
When adults are dealing with the death of a loved one, especially if they were responsible for the care of the deceased, they start with a lot of energy and then the energy drops off sharply. Children tend to build energy to compensate for the grief. A lot of children process grief through play. Have you ever been to a funeral with children and noticed that they can’t seem to keep still? It’s not just because the service is long and boring (to them at least), it’s because they are working through their feelings. I’ve come to the point where I may have a bounce house at my funeral (if my wife will let me).
Grief is individual and unique
Everyone goes through grief differently, and this is no different with children. Their grief is as personal as the relationship they had with the deceased was. As with any loss, when a loved one dies, children begin to see life in a new light and create for themselves a new normal, one that includes death as one of the possibilities of existence. This isn’t bad, it’s actually very healthy. If you allow a child to grieve the way they need to, they can become a stronger and better version of themselves.
Grieving children often feel alone
It’s hard to understand what someone else is going through when they are grieving. A lot of people will refrain from talking about it in hopes of avoiding pain or awkwardness. What this well-intentioned (albeit discourteous) practice tells children is that they shouldn’t talk about it, although this concept couldn’t be further from the truth. Children need to hear that they aren’t the only ones suffering. They need to know that others miss the deceased, and that it’s OK to cry. If the parents/guardians of the children create opportunities to discuss and share the experience, it helps children know they aren’t alone. My wife and I have taken our children to a grief support group where each child can tell about who died, how they died and reference something they remember about their lost loved one. The end benefit is that each child knows that they are never alone in their grief.
Grief is a life-long journey
Children who experience the death of a family member or close friend will experience grief in different aspects as they grow. Boys and girls will experience different levels of grief and loss in different intensities throughout the different stages of their lives, especially when they remember the loved one. This is completely natural and part of building their lives. Allowing children to talk about it whenever they are experiencing these times of intense grief will help them to navigate through the rough waters and move on.
No one wants to feel alone in their grief, no matter when or how or to whom it happens. To help your children wade through the rocky shoals of grief, most of the time it just takes a little patience and understanding to help them see that, though the loss of a loved one is awful, it’s something they can live through and grow from.