Losing a loved one is never easy. The time following a death is often filled with emotional turmoil, chaos, and change. For adults and children alike, grieving is an important part of accepting that a loved one has died, dealing with difficult feelings, and saying goodbye. For kids, having a caring adult who will guide them through this process can create an opportunity for growth and transformation. Here's how you can help your child cope with grief and begin the journey toward recovery after loss.
Tell the truth. Hiding information can cause kids to feel mistrust, and reluctant to turn to adults for support. Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, art therapist, and author of The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11, explains: "When you don't tell the truth it makes feelings and information go underground, which is never good. Kids also get crazy ideas because they have to make up information to fill in the blanks." She adds, though, that your child's age and personality will determine how much information they can tolerate or process. Not all kids do well with lots of details.
"Think of it as an open discussion, not a lecture," Dr. Goodman says. "Start with some basics to open the discussion, then find out what they know and think, which will lead you to how much they need to know and any incorrect information they may have." Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Loss and Transition in Fort Collins, CO, says, "Children can only deal with what they know, not what they don't know." By trusting your kids to handle the news, you send the message that they can come to you for anything.
When discussing the death of a loved one, avoid making abstract ("He's passed on"; "He's in the great beyond") or literal ("We've lost her"; "She's no longer with us") statements that a child could misunderstand. Instead, use clear and concrete words to minimize confusion. Dr. Wolfelt suggests using "direct, age-appropriate language. Kids use the words dead or dying and they do it much more naturally than we as adults do." You might take your child on your lap and say, "I have something very sad to tell you. Grandma has died. She's not alive anymore and we won't be able to see her and play with her." Then sit quietly and listen. Reading an age-appropriate book on bereavement, such as I Miss You, by Pat Thomas or The Saddest Time, by Norma Simon, can also help them express their sad feelings.
Children's concerns are often different than you might expect from worrying the deceased will get hungry underground to wondering who will throw the birthday parties. "Their questions aren't necessarily what your questions are," Dr. Goodman says. "You may be thinking about how to explain cancer while they're wondering if there will be holes in the box for breathing." A child may also continue to wonder when Grandpa's coming over.
"Gently and lovingly say, 'Grandpa has died and though we wish he can come over, he can't.' They might pose other questions, like 'Where is he?' and you can then teach what you believe," Dr. Wolfelt says. "Kids are naturally curious. We have to be very patient, available, and responsive when they ask questions." Encourage questions but don't worry about having all the answers; what's more important is being available and responding in ways that show you care. Emphasize that your kids are not alone in their feelings of helplessness and bewilderment, and that you will grieve together and support each other as a family.
"Kids don't always communicate just with words. When there's a wound you can't see, it comes out in behavioral symptoms. So you have to be a detective and listen and watch," Dr. Goodman advises. Common reactions include fighting, denial, mood swings, self-blame, fear of being alone, regression to early childhood behaviors, physical complaints like stomach aches or headaches, trouble sleeping, academic issues (both failures and hyper-achievement), or a lack of feelings altogether. Watch for these red flags, which may call for increased outreach. According to Dr. Wolfelt, "Children mourn in doses, so it's common for emotions to be expressed and repeated over time." But if a child is totally immobilized over an extended period of time, it would be wise to get professional help.
It's natural for children to experience a wide range of emotions when processing the death of a loved one. "It's our job to become familiar with what those might be so we don't shame kids for having them," Dr. Wolfelt explains. Feelings of anger, regret, and even relief are all natural and appropriate. Kids sometimes engage in irrational thinking-- the belief that their thoughts control people's actions and may have caused something bad to happen. "They may be scared to go to school or camp for fear that something will happen to somebody else while they're gone," Dr. Goodman says.
By accepting kids' concerns we can demystify any misconceptions or feelings of responsibility they may have. Encourage your children to express their emotions, either verbally or nonverbally. "Emotions aren't always revealed in words," Dr. Goodman points out. Drawing, writing, sharing stories, and playing pretend can also be helpful ways for kids to express what's on their minds.
Kids will express their feelings if they see you demonstrating yours. "Adults are the primary barometer that children have for their own mourning," Dr. Wolfelt explains. Dr. Goodman agrees: "You don't need to hide your reaction; that's not authentic and it doesn't validate that something difficult happened. Be sure to keep strong, dramatic feelings for private times with other adults and have your own coping skills and supports." Consider appropriate ways to talk about your feelings. "You might say, 'Sometimes I have a really down day because I'm thinking about my mom and I miss her and I feel like nothing's the same. I don't know if you ever get like that,'" Dr. Goodman suggests. By modeling that you are sad and explaining those feelings in a clear and constructive way, you help your kids to understand their own.
Planting a tree, lighting a candle, attending a memorial, or collecting keepsakes are all ways a child can participate in saying good-bye to a loved one. "Children, in their effort to integrate loss, naturally start using ceremony, which helps them begin to acknowledge and express what they feel from the inside to the outside" Dr. Wolfelt says. Find out if and how your child would like to participate but don't force him. Creating new rituals that combine the past and the present, such as doing something to remember the loved one on a particular day, can also be helpful. "Any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn," Dr. Wolfelt points out, "and should have the same right and privilege to be included." By contributing in a way that is comfortable, children begin to integrate the loss into their lives.
Having regular recreational, social, and academic activities will help kids feel normal and grounded. Kids will be concerned with how their lives will change, so it's important to reassure them that most things will go on as usual and to continue following a structured schedule. School and extracurricular activities can offer a break from the grief because "it puts some part of life back in place when everything else feels so out of place," Dr. Goodman says. Having set bedtimes, family meals, story times, and cuddling and kissing provides stability and organization at a time when grief has caused instability and chaos.
If your loved one's death involved a tragedy that has gained public attention, shield kids from repetitive media coverage and discussions. According to Dr. Goodman, repeated viewing of a crisis by young children can be confusing, causing them to believe that events are reoccuring. For older children, too much exposure can be overwhelming and leave them feeling helpless. "Families have to work hard to maintain their privacy during a public trauma," she explains, "because they don't get the same relief in terms of finding safe places."
Though parents can't shield children from the inadvertent comments of strangers, family members, or peers, you can prepare kids to handle these scenarios. "Let them know that people may say 'X,' but that this is the truth, or role-play answers so they feel in control and ready," she adds. Repetition can make it harder, so limiting and monitoring media is important. Instead, encourage and respect private and personal ways of grieving such as writing together in a journal. Stay tuned into your child, not the news.
Corinne Schuman is a mother and licensed mental health counselor in Washington, DC.