I promise, this is my last post about grief!
When children experience grief and loss, and they do, the feelings often come under the “what about me” umbrella. These include jealousy, anger, fear, guilt, blame, loneliness, and sadness. I have some experience with loss involving children, and I have also attended some trainings around the support of children and families through their loss and grief.
Tell the truth. It’s okay to be honest with kids (they see through us anyway), and in the long run, it will support the healing process. When children are given honest information, it empowers them and makes them feel safe. If all they know was that their mom was sick and is gone now, they will think every sniffle will take them away from their family. And remember to tell the truth about your own feelings.
Memorialize. That means helping the child remember the one they’ve lost. A photo, a cherished souvenir, or even a clothing item will help the child to feel close to their loved one. This kind of thing is what adults seek when faced with loss, it only makes sense that children would too. The difference is that kids need help, they need to know that it’s ok to remember that person/pet/home and feel sad.
Routine, routine, routine. Kids need routine even on a good day. But when they feel unsafe after a loss, they need it even more. Maintaining routines after loss reminds children that there are still things they can count on. It’s ok to say, “I know things are different now, but we still go to bed at 8:00.” Just giving children that security can help them dramatically, and their routines can help us adults. We don’t always take the best care of ourselves in these situations. But if you’re making breakfast for your child, you may eat a few bites too.
Move through the grief. Emotions are fluid and always moving and changing. Let yourself move through those feelings and support children as they move through them. It’s ok to laugh at a funny story of a lost loved one. It’s also ok to be mad that they are gone. Children look to the adults in their lives for cues, and if we’re stuck, they can get stuck too.
Seek support. Whether you and your family need an actual grief counselor or grief support group, or less formal support is up to each individual. Some children look for a physical outlet for their grief. Other children turn to artwork as a form of expression. Talking to others who share feelings of loss can be the most powerful experience for kids. They discover that they are not alone, and they have an opportunity to see that it’s ok to move beyond feelings of sadness.
Bottom line: loss is hard for all of us, but children need an extra special touch. And be prepared for some amazing insights from children. After the sudden death of my husband’s sister, our son noticed a branch hitting the window of our car in traffic. This was just two days after her death, and at age 4 he says, “that must be Aunt Kate at the window saying hi .”