When you are grieving the loss of a loved one or a pet, it is difficult to cope with your personal grief, while also helping your children cope with theirs. Additionally, grief is an individual process and no one grieves or mourns in the exact same way. This article offers advice to help you understand the grief process, while providing you with specifics as to how you can help your child through this difficult time.
- give kids permission to grieve
- be curious and act with care
- provide honest answers
- separate your grief from theirs
- recognize the gift of grief
- forget that grief is individual
- compare death to sleep
- expect kids to fulfill the empty role of parent
- overlook the need to normalize reactions
- underestimate the power of group support
Do give kids permission to grieve
It is extremely difficult to see a child’s pain and suffering, especially when it is due to a loss. Most kids have never experienced a loss and are in unknown territory. Parents also may be in unknown territory.
Children grieve in their own way. For some kids, withdrawing into video games is their means of coping. For others, developmental regression can occur, such as bedwetting. Allow kids to show you their active state of mourning and give them permission to do it in their own way.
Do be curious and act with care
Be curious about what your child is experiencing. Ask lots of questions with care. Questions should be unobtrusive and paced. Use yourself as a way for the child to discuss the loss. For example: “I was thinking about the death of your pet, and it brought up a big lump in my throat. I feel sad. Do you know what you are feeling?” Once you have posed a question, patiently wait for a response. Surprisingly, you might get a response that night or later in the week. Allow children to process in their own time.
Do provide honest answers
When kids lose a parent, sibling or anyone dear to them, they will start to ask questions about death. The questions can come after the immediate loss or 6 to 8 months after the initial shock of the loss has begun to diminish.
Some of the most common questions asked include: What is death? Why do people die? Where do they go when they die? Will I die, too? Can’t they come back? Be sure to answer these questions as honestly as you are able. If you tell kids that their sibling or grandparent is asleep, you might put the fear of sleep into them. Find a way to be honest and provide an appropriate response for their age.
Do separate your grief from theirs
If the family is suffering from the loss of a loved one, children often experience the loss of the loved one and the loss of the grieving parents. Though it is difficult to put the emotions of grief aside, remember that children are vulnerable and take cues from the way in which you cope with loss.
If you hide and retreat, they may do the same. For kids, it is harder to come out of the emotional shell than for adults. If you need time for your emotions, share the idea that kids can create a symbolic cry box, which they can put their emotions into. Parents can also use it and go to it when you have private time.
Do recognize the gift of grief
In every loss, there is a birth. In the moment of the active state of mourning, it is very difficult to imagine that there could be something empowering about the loss. Often, children become more inventive or more insightful when they have lost a loved one or a pet.
When you are aware of the shift that your child has gone through in response to the loss, you can gently communicate what changes you see in them since the loss. This may occur over the weeks and months after the loss — or it can take years. Recognize that your children will shift when they come into close proximity to death. How can you take these changes and move them into a positive sphere for your child? Remember that with every death, there is a birth.
Do not forget that grief is individual
Children do not mourn the same way that adults mourn. Since grief is individual to everyone, know that your child will not grieve the way you grieve. If you see them playing, don’t stop them, as they may be working out some of their grief in their language or comfort zone.
Do not compare death to sleep
When you say, “Daddy is in a very restful sleep” or “You will see your dog in your dreams,” you are implanting a false belief that can cause undo stress and fear for your child. No matter how old your child is, using metaphors for death that liken it to sleep often creates a fear of sleep. This can lead to anxiety and depression for children. Instead say, “Daddy is not here anymore. He is in our memories, and we can keep him alive in our hearts.”
Do not expect kids to fulfill the empty role of parent
After the loss of a parent, it is common to adultify the children in the house. For example, by explaining to kids that now that dad or mom is gone, the child will sit in his or her seat, or the child will become the head of the family. This creates a role for children that they need not have. Let them be children without asking them to fulfill a role that has been lost.
Do not put them in dad’s chair or expect them to do the shopping that mom used to do. Give kids responsibilities in the home that are age appropriate, but do not give these as a response to the loss.
Do not overlook the need to normalize reactions
The phases of mourning will come to you, rather than you seeking them out. When in the state of grief, children can have outrageous responses to simple situations and stimuli. They may act out through angry outbursts, regress in their developmental stages or seem difficult to reach. Depending on whether they are an extrovert or an introvert, their response to loss also will vary.
Put punishments aside for now. If your child starts wetting the bed after experiencing the loss of a loved one or a pet, allow backward movement. They might wait for a reaction from you, but hold onto yourself. Share with them that everybody is having a hard time with the loss. If you normalize their reactions, children will re-enter their appropriate developmental phase.
Do not underestimate the power of group support
Children often cope with their losses when they are exposed to other kids who have had a similar loss. No matter what your thoughts are about therapy, this is not about you — but what will be good for your child. Many local houses of worship, YMCAs and even family clinics offer grief support groups for kids of all ages.
When you are grieving the loss of a loved one or a pet, it is difficult to cope with your personal grief, while also helping your children cope with theirs. Reach out to support systems, attend support groups and understand that grief is an individual process. No one grieves or mourns in the exact same way.
C.S Lewis wrote the most apt statement regarding parents coping with children who are grieving: “…the wish to protect the child from the pain of an irreversible loss contains the adults reluctance to confront a shattered illusion.”