Q: My 5-year-old is having trouble coping with the death of her grandmother. How can we help?
A: "A death offers the greatest possibility for a parent to teach a child how to deal with loss," says Russell P. Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, CA, and coauthor of the new book When Children Grieve. "Ask yourself how you've reacted to death, and make sure your own behavior is something you'd want your child to mimic," he says. "If you act strong and hide your sad feelings, she'll learn to do the same."
It's a mistake to tell your child not to feel bad, says Friedman. "By saying 'Don't feel sad, Grandma's not in pain anymore,' you're dismissing her feelings." When you discuss how the death has affected her, volunteer your own thoughts instead of asking a direct question. Start with something like "I thought about Grandma all day while I was at work, and I wanted to cry. I felt really sad." Then stay quiet. Even if your child doesn't say anything, you've still shown her it's okay to talk about loss.
And when she does talk about it, resist the urge to make things better for your child, advises Friedman. Instead, nod while she's speaking, hold her hand, or interject phrases like "It's normal to feel so upset when something sad happens to you." "What makes the pain go away is the acknowledgment -- not the dismissal -- of feelings," says Friedman.
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2001 issue of Child magazine.