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Helping Children Deal with Grief and Loss

Contributed by Jody McVittie and January Handl

The events of the last week in Seattle have been tragic and heart-breaking. There are too many innocent victims of violence that carries no easy explanation. As parents it reminds us of something we prefer not to notice most of the time: we cannot guarantee the safety of the people we love most. We can do our best. We can worry, we can be anxious, we can teach our children life skills that will be helpful – and things happen. People get sick, crazy things happen and we are reminded of how love holds us together even in the face of great loss. Sadness and grief are an appropriate response to loss – and yet because we do our best to avoid loss sometimes we don’t know what to do or say when it comes to visit us. I’m sharing a longer version of our normal format today because I think so many of us are looking for tools and for some solid ground to stand on in the face of the events of the week. The piece that follows was written by my colleague, January Handl.

You don’t get to decide when grief enters your child’s life. Sometimes we want to shield our children from sorrow – yet by experiencing loss as part of the ups and downs of life children learn about how capable and resilient they are. We can learn, and in turn teach our children, that we do not control situations that occur in life. We can only control our responses to those things. Grief is a natural response to events that sadden us. It is a normal response to a sense of loss including things like: having a best friend ditch you, not getting a job you were sure was yours, or more permanent losses like the loss of a home or important person in your life.
We feel very helpless and awkward around grief because we cannot fix it. The most important thing is to encourage you to always keep the door to communication with your child open- sometimes this is by simply being with a grieving person (child) in a true listening state. Sometimes it is admitting the awkwardness that the child (person) senses as obvious.

When a child first contemplates death, they often begin to worry about someone close to them dying, or even their own death- reassure without promising that it’s probably something you won’t have to worry about until the child is grown, and that you have someone to take care of them, no matter what. Reassure the child that it is very rare for children to become so sick or injured that their body dies, most children live to become grown ups. It’s OK not to know immediately how to respond to a child’s questions, model to them that taking the time to give thoughtful answers is something we all need to do from time to time. Do make sure that you return to their query in a timely fashion.

Use every day opportunities to discuss death and change, loss and grief. Have picture books that provide opportunities for the child’s questions BEFORE grief enters their lives. Children can provide opportunities to examine our beliefs and values; to truly think deeply about who we are and how we want to be in the world. Death/grief can be a way to discuss spiritual beliefs, family values and our deepest fears and desires.

Death is a natural part of living. It can (and does) inform our lives in every instant. This can be unconscious and fear-driven, or brought to light and welcomed. If children show interest, allow them to say good-bye and attend any rituals or memorials. Provide them with an adult who is emotionally available to support them, and make contingency plans for if/when their interest waivers.

If you yourself are experiencing deep grief, make sure your child knows this, try to ensure that someone is emotionally available to support your child (and you!) and allow yourself time. As in all parenting, your model is a big part of how your child learns about living. Do be careful not to burden your child with “out of control” emotion, or the message that you cannot cope. Sometimes people get “stuck” in sorrow- a skilled professional counselor can be a huge help to a family who have members who are showing they need additional support.

Responses to change, loss and grief vary greatly. Some of the factors that impact this are:
• Age and developmental emotional, social and cognitive stage
• Temperament (especially adaptability)
• Relationship to loss or loved one who died
• The nature of the loss or death- traumatic and sudden loss is more difficult in some ways; prolonged illness often brings additional guilt over relief felt when loved one is finally gone.
• Circumstances of relationship at the time of death
• Past history with loss, change and death
• Family, cultural, and religious beliefs surrounding death

Children, like all individuals, will have individual responses to such events. They tend to live in the moment, so often do not stay focused on their grief for any prolonged time. It may look to an adult who is grieving as if they are not impacted. They are. Here are some typical responses to stressors that children exhibit and some suggested adult responses:

Children may be more moody and have more emotional outbursts. Provide lots of extra attention when possible, allow cool down time with a big heart of understanding, listen without “pumping” your child for what is going on inside. Offer compassion, and keep “normal” limits. They do want to know that you will continue to guide them, even in tough circumstances.

Children may act out more. Often it is in direct response to feeling like things are not “the same” and that control has vanished. Give time, keep boundaries, and offer control where appropriate.

Sleeping, eating, toileting behaviors may be disrupted, often with some regression to past developmental stages. Offer compassion and understanding, and where possible keep routines the same.

Children may insist on routine and become upset when things must change. Whenever you can foreshadow for your child any necessary changes to routine, and help them prepare for them, it will be helpful for everyone. This is a time when people feel such a loss of control – allow control where it can be given.

Children may “play” out scenes of illness or death or burial. Especially for young children, this is how they are making meaning and creating a “safe” narrative of what has happened. Take note of the play, but unless you are worried about safety, allow it. Ask questions, or draw correlations for the child to current events as seems appropriate.

Children may ask questions, seemingly over and over, or at times that may seem inappropriate. Acknowledge feelings, and answer questions as openly and often as the child’s needs indicate.

Children may withdraw from some of their normal activities and relationships. Take note, but give them time and space to come to terms with the difficulties of loss. At appropriate times, offer distraction or engagement.

Children may become “hyper”, seeming constantly busy. Allow what is safe, offer “down” time when it looks as though the child needs support.

Children’s grief may surface days, months, even years after the actual loss. Nature has provided a latency in grief as our bodies, minds and hearts gradually process it.

Photo credit: Instant Vantage
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