Guest Writers

Supporting Your Child(ren) Through Grief

Grief, while an inevitable part of being human, is a thing many parents feel ill-equipped to maneuver through with their children. While undeniably universal, grief is still deeply personal. There are cultural, familial, and developmental differences in how we process and express grief, leaving no clear roadmap for navigation. It can be difficult to be what our children need in moments of our own intense feelings of loss. This does not make you a bad parent, it simply highlights that you are, in fact, human.

Below are some tips that I have cultivated over the years of working with grief-stricken families and have utilized with my own family. Just as the grief process can be nonlinear, you may notice that these are not numbered- take what works for you and your family in any moment that feel right!

ENGAGE THEM IN OPEN, HONEST, DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE COMMUNICATION

As is so often the case, we as adults attempt to shield our children from pain.  Yet, I have seen countless times how this type of ‘shielding’ actually ends up being more harmful to the child.  Kids are intuitive.  They can tell when adults are beating around the truth, they feel those awkward pauses, and read through your deep breaths or stutters.  The true problem in ‘shielding’ lies in the fact that youth don’t have the life experience, or reasoning ability, to pinpoint just what it is that you are keeping from them.  So…they fill in the blanks.  And, they often fill the blanks in with the wrong information, with information that is usually worse than the truth, and almost always tied to the child, their own actions, behaviors, and general self, in some way shape or form.  This is how we end up with children believing the death of a loved one is their fault because they didn’t brush their teeth or because they said they hated the loved one in their last argument. 

The best way to ensure that a child doesn’t jump to these types of conclusions is to be honest with them about the death or the loss.  There are countless websites out there that will outline what is considered developmentally appropriate.  For the most part, these sites are pretty close to accurate based on ages, but you know your child better than anyone—you determine what is appropriate or not to share with them within the context of your spiritual, religious, and cultural beliefs and your family norms.  You can also gauge what is appropriate based on what questions your child continues to ask—if they are asking, they are in need of additional information. 

Kids can also, I have noted in both my own personal life and my professional work, be ninjas when it comes to eavesdropping on adult conversation.  They may already know, and be trying to process, much more than what you believe they know.  It can be helpful to start these conversations with asking what they know or understand about death or the circumstances leading up to the death of a loved one.  This can feel awkward for you, as the adult, because much of our society shuns from these types of conversations; but, for many kids (and teens) knowing that conversation is welcome aids them in their grief process. 

(Check out my blog for examples of phrases I use with my own kids, if you need additional inspiration/support).

ALLOW THEM TO GRIEVE (IN WAYS THEY FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH)

As with adults, each child experiences and expresses grief differently.  Children read the room and attempt to meet the unspoken expectations of their living loved ones.  As stated above, youth are experts at sensing the unspoken, but not always so good at making sense of it.  Letting children and adolescents know that it is okay to feel whatever feelings they are having and to express those in whatever ways they need to (if it isn’t harming themselves or others) can be a very powerful step in the grieving process.  Sometimes it can be helpful for an adult to model, or normalize, some of ways people experience grief, such as crying, feeling angry, feeling numb, or finding themselves forgetting the person is dead.  Often, youth are unsure of how to manage the feelings they have.  Engaging in shared grieving activities, such as journaling, looking at pictures, or ripping up paper can help channel the varying emotions a child may be experiencing. 

It is important to note that your child may be experiencing or expressing grief in ways that feel uncomfortable to you.  For example, they may be crying.  It can be hard to watch your child cry and you may feel drawn to distract them or tell them to stop (especially if you aren’t a crier).  I would encourage you to just sit with them in their tears, put your arm around them, and let them know you are there if they want to talk.  Alternatively, your child may want to talk about their deceased loved one but may sense that such conversations upset you.  If this is the case, check out the last tip in the document, as children who are unable to express and process their pain in a healthy outlet tend to process it through unhealthy means (self-harming, drug experimentation, anxiety symptoms, acting out behaviors, etc.)

ENGAGE IN CLOSURE/GOOD-BYE ACTIVITY ( AND IN REMEMBERENCE ACTIVITES)

Closure is just as important to children as it is to adults, maybe even more so.  Younger children tend to have a more concrete way of thinking, thus having an explicit good-bye activity (such as a funeral or a memorial service) can be a way to engage in closure.  Older children and teens will likely need a more personal means of saying goodbye or finding closure.  Often teens find comfort in shared positive memories; therefore, a compilation of memories (videos, photo books, writing activities, etc.) can be a key part of their grieving process.

One of the biggest complaints older children or adolescents have in terms of grieving is that it feels like they are the only ones who miss the deceased individual.  They often lament that other family members are trying to get back to normal too soon or are attempting to avoid their feelings and as a result do not engage in any type of memorial of the death date, the individuals birth date, or other share positive memories.  Often, when engaging family members in this conversation, the reasoning for not engaging in remembrance activities is either to protect the child from the reminder of loss or to enable the adults to continue to engage in their own avoidance of painful memories.  My suggestion is to follow the child’s lead.  If they mention some sort of activity of remembrance, such as making a favorite meal, engaging in an activity favored by the deceased, or wanting to have a special discussion, prayer, etc., do it.  This is your child attempting to express their thoughts and feelings with you.  Give them space to do so!

ANSWER THE QUESTIONS, AND AGAIN, AND AGAIN

Kids will ask questions, repeatedly.  They will ask them when you don’t feel like answering them.  They will ask them when it is embarrassing, or when it kicks you in the gut with your own feelings of loss.  The questions are not meant to be the battering ram they often feel like when you are lost in your own grief.  These questions are your child’s attempt to understand the completely incomprehensible idea of death and dying.  Some kids won’t ask anything at all, other will ask questions you will be floored by.  Answer those you can, say I don’t know for ones you can’t, and know that it is okay to say, “You know, I am having a lot of feelings about XYZ’s death.  It is hard for me to think clearly when I feel these feelings and I don’t think I am ready to have this conversation right now.  Can we try again when I have dealt with my own feelings a little more?”   You can then encourage them to write down their questions/thoughts or pick a time to have a more in depth conversation.

As noted earlier, your answers should be honest and developmentally appropriate.  It is perfectly acceptable, suggested even, to use the words dead, death, died, and dying.  When we talk around what occurred, we are likely to get more questions or to leave kids with more confusion and unexpressed emotions.  Anger, irritability, or refusal to answer when children ask about death and dying will eventually lead to them no longer asking.  No longer asking will lead to bottling of emotions and filling in their own blanks, which often leads to big, difficult feelings, misunderstandings, and behavioral acting out.

SEEK ADDITIONAL SUPPORTS (FOR YOU AND/OR THEM)

Loss sucks.  There is no way to sugar coat the pain that death brings to each of us.  If the above steps feel impossible because you, yourself, are in a space where your own emotions are too big, too raw, too much to be able to help a child navigate their own feelings, that does not make you a bad parent.  That makes you a human experiencing grief.  The best thing you can do in this case is to seek your own support and/or support for your child that is outside of yourself.  This can be leaning on family and/or friends, on community or spiritual supports, or on therapeutic supports in the form of support groups and/or therapy services. 

If your child is refusing to talk to you or to others and not expressing themselves in other healthy ways (such as writing, art, athletics, etc.) or expressing themselves in unhealthy ways (such as self-injurious behaviors, drug use, withdrawing completely, eating/sleeping changes, etc.), seeking therapeutic support is advised, particularly if these behaviors are occurring several months after the death of a loved one.  

Loss is difficult.  There is no road map or defined way to process, heal, and find the new normal.  While these tips can soften the burden, the process of supporting a child through grief will never be painless nor easy.  My heart, my prayers, and my thoughts are with you and yours as you navigate this process.

Written by: Dr. Ashley E. Poklar | Licensed Psychologist | Mother of Four

A Poklar Ponders

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s