Many people feel at a loss for how to help children who are experiencing grief – especially if we are also trying to deal with our own grief. Any adult in a child’s life has an impact and the opportunity to help a child handle grief – teachers, childcare providers, neighbors, and other family members in addition to parents.
Here are a few ways to help children with grief:
1. Honor and Affirm whatever they are feeling
I believe that one of the most beneficial things an adult, especially a parent, can do to help children deal with their grief is to allow the child to talk about and express their experience and feelings without the adult dismissing it, trying to fix it, or minimizing it. It’s hard to remember sometimes that children are amazingly capable to coping with a variety of situations – if we give them the chance and don’t rush to protect them.
I think it’s easy to forget as we grow older how devastating and painful even the smallest losses can be to a child. To a child losing a favorite toy or a pet turtle, while minor to us, can be heart breaking – even if the heart break only lasts a short time. As adults in a child’s life, it’s important to remember this.
If a child is not allowed to experience or express their feelings for the small losses in a way that is honored and respected, we prevent them from learning how to handle the bigger losses (death of a parent, sibling, friend). If children don’t learn the skills of handling and experiencing their grief as children – their griefs, big and small, may follow them into adulthood. On the other hand, if we honor and affirm their experiences, children can learn the skills and strengths to handle their grief and lead happier, healthier lives throughout their life.
2. Allow them to see your grief, pain, and tears.
There seems to be a common belief in society that to “be strong for our kids” means we shouldn’t allow them to see our grief and pain. I think this misperception is because of society’s definition of strength. I think this definition of strong is more harmful than helpful. I also think there is a misperception that if kids don’t see us cry, they won’t know that anything is wrong. Sorry, folks, but kids are a lot smarter and more perceptive than that.
Even if we try to hide our tears and our pain behind closed doors and out of children’s sight – they know. They sense it. And they learn to do what we do – hide and avoid their hurts. Which, as I’ve written about before, does nothing to help anyone.
3. Be honest and use precise language
Often we try to sugarcoat things for kids – ‘Grandma had to go away’ or ‘Spot had to go to sleep for a very, very long time.” We avoid kids questions about death and questions about what happens to Grandpa’s body and questions about how Fluffy will breathe buried underground. I think it’s important to be honest with kids and to use the proper lanuage – “Grandma died yesterday” and “Spot was very sick and he died.” Kids will get upset, they will be confused and they might not completely understand (depending on their developmental level). What I have found though, in working with kids as a therapist, is that most of them do better emotionally in the long run if they are told the truth and their questions are answered respectfully from the start. It was the kids who were told everything was fine or were lied to about how someone died had a much more difficult time later.
Let me also note that I’m not saying to give kids all the gory details about how Grandma died or what happens with Spot’s body after its buried and so on. I’m saying kids seem to do better when their questions are answered as honestly and openly as possible in language suited for them at their developmental level. If you don’t know an answer or how to answer, tell them, “I don’t know.” Kids are more understanding and resilient than we sometimes give them credit for.
4. Include Children in Funeral/Memorial Services or Help Children Create Rituals
Many times children are not included in funeral or memorial services, particularly young children. I think that if a child wants to attend the service, it is important to allow them to attend. Funerals and memorial services are important rituals that help us to say good-bye and to receive social support.
For older children and teens, it can also be helpful for them to participate in the discussions and preparations for the funeral or memorial. Allowing them to contribute to the decision making process helps give them a sense that they are doing something to honor their loved one. Some teens might also want to participate in the service itself – read a letter or poem, play music, etc. I believe it’s helpful for teens to at least be given the option to actively participate – even if they decline the opportunity.
If it’s not possible for the child to attend the service or if it is another kind of loss (such as loss of a pet, a friend moved away, moving), it can be helpful to create some other kind of ritual for the child to honor the loss or change. Kids can hold their own service for the pet or person who died, create drawings or letters to the friend who moved away, write a story about their favorite memories in their old house, and much much more. Children often easily come up with creative ideas for rituals that will help them integrate and process the grief they feel around the loss or change.