Helping Children Deal With Death And Loss
How adults can help children learn to deal appropriately with their emotions as they face loss and death. Learn how to assist your children in the grieving process.
Death and loss do not happen just to adults. When events occur which bring loss and/or death to the family, it is all too easy to overlook the youngest members, thinking, perhaps, that they are not affected, don't "realize what is really happening", etc. On the contrary, children experience loss and death and the resulting emotions as much, as often, and as fully as adults. It is important that adults allow their children to participate fully and appropriately in the grieving process.
Loss and death can come into the lives of children in many forms. Too often, parents and other primary adults do not realize that children are affected emotionally by what is happening around them. Care needs to be taken to invite children to participate in the family's dealing with losses or death. Then, too, children need to be taught how to deal with the emotions they are feeling. Some of the types of loss children often experience include the following: death of a significant person, including a family member; divorce which brings intense feelings of loss to youngsters; a friend moving away or choosing to end the friendship; loss of a pet, which is a major issue far too often overlooked; moving to a new house or town and leaving all that spells security and comfort behind.
Perhaps the two most important things a parent can do for a child when loss occurs is: 1. Invite the child to talk about it. Talk, talk, talk, and when you're all done talking, talk some more, and 2. Tell your child that she is allowed to have whatever feelings she has.
It is important to not keep secrets when death and loss come. Do not think you are doing your child a favor by "sugar-coating" the truth. Do not think that it is in the best interests of the child to not be told what is really going on. Children above the age of 3 (depending, of course, on the individual maturity level) are mostly likely ready to know the truth and to then deal with it on a level that is age-appropriate.
If truth is kept from your child when the loss occurs, later on it will come to haunt the parent, for the child is likely to experience a great loss of trust in the parent who does not share the truth with the child. Naturally, giving of details needs to be tailored to each child and his maturity level and personality type. But, in general, tell your child, simply and clearly, what is going on.
Example your child in allowing himself to feel.
Make statements such, "We are all sad. We know how you must be feeling. It is okay. We surely will miss Grandma...or...Laddie was just the best dog ever and now we really miss him." Encourage your child to talk about whatever is on her mind regarding the death or loss. And remember that, to be healthy, one talk will not "fix it." It is most likely that your child will need to talk repeatedly. He is also likely to have many questions. Allow your child to ask the questions, but also allow yourself to not feel you need to have all the answers. Answer as best as you can, keeping it brief, simple, and clear. If you have a religious faith or philosophy that you find helpful and is a part of your family life, remind the child of that and use this opportunity to educate your child further in the family's core belief system. Do this in a simple way that is appropriate for the child's age. Allow yourself to tell the child that there are some answers you don't have, going on to tell her that you surely do care about what she is feeling. If your child doesn't know how to identify her feelings, again, see this as an educational opportunity and work with the child on this. There are posters, books, music, and videos available that can be of tremendous help in normalizing for the child what she is feeling and in helping her to give names to her emotions.
Remember the five stages of grief, per Dr. Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression or sadness, and finally, acceptance. Keep in mind that the grief process is not a linear one, but rather expect that both you and your child will move back and forth among the above stages. Your child may be angry one day and filled with sadness the next, while three days hence you may overhear her trying to make a bargain with God if He will only return her Granny to her. This is all normal, to be accepted, and eventually the process will complete itself, if not rushed or artificially altered.
Use means other than words to allow your child to grieve. Especially for younger children, but also true for teens, using art media to express emotions can be profoundly healing. Let your child draw a picture of how she feels, of a favorite memory of her and her kitty. Encourage your son to sing, dance, write poetry or prose, sculpt or drum out his feelings. Perhaps the family could all draw pictures of memories of Grandma and share them at a meal. Talking is good and has an important place in the grief process, but other means of expression can be extremely helpful.
Do not set a time limit on grief. Allow the process to unfold naturally. There is not a deadline by which your child "should be over it." The first six weeks are the period of crisis, but the entire process of grieving will take much longer, depending on what the loss is and who your child is. Do not quench your child's spirit or wound it by having expectations on how long she "should" be grieving. It will end, and each person should be allowed the dignity of having her own process.
In summary, adults can be very helpful to their children by allowing them to know the truth of what is happening in their lives, by inviting them to participate in the grieving process, exampling them in word and actions. Children benefit when they are allowed to express their feelings when death or loss comes. Many methods of expression can benefit the child. Perhaps being allowed to talk through their feelings is most helpful, but expression through the arts is also beneficial. Appropriately grieving losses experienced in childhood can form a foundation for knowing how to grieve as an adult. Loss and grief are but parts of life. Encourage your child to learn how to deal with death and other forms of loss; you will be equipping them for a healthy adulthood.