Helping Your Children Understand and Cope with Grief
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When a loved one passes away, the world has a way of spiraling out of control. You may not have a good grasp of your own feelings. How can you help a child work through theirs?
Children learn a lot from their first encounters with loss and grief. Parents and guardians need to provide them with a stable framework from which they can encounter their feelings, and express them as they see fit.
In this article, we take a look at how you can help your children understand and cope with grief.
Use Simple But Clear Language
Comprehension is the most important aspect of ensuring your child has a healthy experience with loss. This means using clear language that doesn’t shy away from what has happened. The classic “dog ran off to the farm” story, may give children a brief moment of comfort, but it doesn’t prepare them for the reality of loss.
Instead of using euphemisms, explain in terms that are appropriate to the child’s age group what happened and what it means, up to and including the fact that the person who has passed on will not be around physically anymore.
If your family has a spiritual or religious interpretation of death, this may be an appropriate time to weave your beliefs into the conversation. However, make sure that before you layer in abstractions, you go over the concrete details of what happened, and what it means for the immediate future.
Once you have established this baseline you can integrate as much faith as you want into the conversation.
Listen and Comfort
This step may happen at the same time as the last one, or it may take place gradually over the ensuing weeks and months. Regardless, your child needs to be able to come to you for comfort. Listen carefully to what they are saying and be thoughtful about how you offer your comfort.
Many parents find it is better to favor a “less is more approach” for the simple reason that grieving people usually benefit from talking more than they do from listening. You may feel the impulse to use phrases you hope will provide comfort.
There are many stock phrases to comfort the grieving that tend to do more harm than good.
- “I know just how you feel.” No, you don’t. How could you? There will be appropriate times to describe your feelings — we will touch on that soon — but this isn’t it. Don’t direct the conversation back to yourself. Instead, ask them follow-up questions about the feelings they have described. This may help them put their grief into terms both of you better understand.
- “You must feel *blank*”. This is similar to telling the child that you know how they feel. It’s always best to let them put words to their feelings.
- “They are in a better place.” You may feel this way. There may even be an appropriate time to bring that feeling up. Now probably isn’t it. Your child should experience grief in all its stages. Telling them that the departed is in a better place may create the assumption that they aren’t supposed to feel as sad as they do.
- “At least we had the holidays with them.” Similar to the previous point, this phrase encourages the child to view what happened in a more positive light than they might be prepared to. It also might not reflect their feelings at all.
Parents feel naturally inclined to keep their children from experiencing pain. There are situations where this is the right attitude. Grief isn’t one of them. Your job is to help your child feel comfortable experiencing and expressing all of the emotions that arise during the grieving process.
Model the Behavior You Want to See from Them
Your children will look to you as a model for how they should experience grief. Be open and honest about your feelings at times where it is appropriate. This doesn’t mean you need to have yourself a cry in line at the grocery store (though if you must, you must). It does mean your child could benefit from hearing you articulate your feelings.
“I really miss them today.” Simple statements can have a big impact, at once contextualizing that grief happens to everyone, and giving your child the opportunity to audit their own emotions as well.
Remember: you don’t want to project your feelings onto them. If they don’t second that they are also feeling sad, it’s ok. They don’t have to.
Involve Them in the Farewell Process
Depending on your child’s age, the role they can play in a funeral may be limited. Where possible, however, it can be productive to have them participate in the ceremony. This could simply mean standing up front of the grieving line at the wake. Or (depending on the nature of your ceremony) it could involve a reading of some kind.
You could even invite them to help you pick out a flower arrangement or a food item for the banquet after. The specifics of their job will most likely be less important than making sure they have one. Giving your child a role allows them to engage with the grieving process actively. It may also give the process a sense of realism that loss in its most sudden forms can sometimes lack.
Help Your Child Remember the Person
It’s also good to keep the memory of the person who passed away alive in your heart. The temptation not to discuss a deceased loved one can be strong—particularly in the months immediately following the loss.
However, when you can overcome the urge to stay silent it has the potential to benefit you and your child. Mention how you got a recipe from the departed. Talk about how the last time you visited location X, it was with them.
Keep the traditions and stories of the person who passed away alive. Sometimes, it may be painful to do so. However, in the long run, it provides your entire family with a productive and therapeutic way to experience the loss.
Consider a Grief Counselor
Sometimes families need help coping with a loss. If you or your child feel like you could use professional assistance, consider the services of a grief counselor. Not only can this give you the tools you need to cope with your loss in the short term, but the counselor may also equip you with the skills you need to approach death and loss in a healthier way going forward.
*This article is based on personal suggestions and/or experiences and is for informational purposes only. This should not be used as professional advice. Please consult a professional where applicable.