Helping your child deal with loss.
The death of someone we know, care about, and even love usually results in grief, the most common of all human experiences. Grief is not a problem to be cured. It is simply a statement that we have loved someone.
It sounds so simple and yet when someone close to us dies our world is turned upside down for a time. For children, the death can be particularly distressful. Suddenly, the normal atmosphere at your house changes, people are crying, the telephone is ringing constantly and visitors keep arriving. A child observes and feels all of the changes, yet isn’t sure what caused it.
To dispel the mystery, tell your children as simply and honestly as possible what has happened. If you don’t, their imaginations may produce scenarios much worse than the truth. Youngsters may think they are somehow responsible for the death and suffer feelings of guilt. They need to be reassured they will be loved and cared for even though the person is gone.
As with any death, the closeness of the relationship between the two people affects the degree of grief. The death of a school friend may be much more traumatic than the death of a great-aunt. When someone close to you in age dies it raises questions about your own mortality.
Reactions differ by age
A child’s grief mirrors that of adults. The numb feelings that follow right after a death give the child time to absorb the news. It takes time to believe a death has occurred. In the following days, there may be tears or angry outbursts. Shock, denial, sadness and guilt may all play a role in the feelings that rise to the surface. Now is the time to really listen to the child, allow him to express his anger and fear and comfort him.
Some children may experience separation anxiety, not letting their parents out of their sight even for short periods of time. These youngsters need to be physically closer to mom or dad to be sure they are still there. Some children may be fine during the day, but show distress at night. They may worry about going to sleep, especially if they know the person died in bed. Leave a light on, or read and snuggle with the child until she falls asleep.
Encourage your child to talk about her feelings. You don’t have to have all of the answers. In fact, admitting you don’t understand all that has happened reassures the child that she isn’t the only one with unanswered questions. As your child talks, you’ll begin to see what it is she needs in the way of reassurance.
It’s also important for the child to attend the funeral or memorial service. Writing a letter or poem or making pictures for the person who has died gives the youngster an opportunity to say goodbye in his own way.
A memory box is also a great aid to the grieving process. The box (plain or decorated) is used to store treasured mementos of the person who has died. These can include pictures, letters, cards, jewellery or favourite items. When kids feel sad, they can open the box and feel close to the person who has died.
Older children often hide their sadness, sometimes for fear of enhancing their parents’ grief. Teens may show their grief with close friends or express it in journals or through poetry, music and artwork. These are all good outlets. But sometimes teens need to talk to an adult. Sharing your own sorrow with your teen allows him to feel safe enough to talk about how the loss is affecting him. We all need to tell our grief stories over and over before we truly believe what has happened. The brain may know the truth, but it takes the heart longer to accept the reality of the death.
Children need to be assured that whatever way they choose to express their grief is okay. Parents can be good role models by openly grieving the death of a loved one. The sharing of their loss shows children that death is part of life, even though it is painful.
When you give yourself permission to grieve, you are also giving yourself permission to heal. The example you set will allow your child to see how the process works. Together, parents and children can support each other as they remember the one who is gone. In time, the death itself fades, but the memories of the person and their contributions to the family continue.
If the first grieves of life are handled well, young people will be better equipped for the larger losses they will face as adults.