Learning to mourn, and to be comfortable with the grieving process, might not seem like a parenting skill. But grief is a part of every life, and how we handle loss has a huge impact on the richness of our family's emotional life. Our comfort level with loss also gives our children an important role model.
At times, there will be nothing we can do for our child except to sit with him and let him experience his grief: over a sports defeat, an inconsiderate peer, a dead pet, or even an ill or deceased loved one. To work through his grief, our child needs what therapists call a “holding environment,” and we are the ones who do the holding, both physically and emotionally.
If we are so uncomfortable with loss that we cannot allow our child to mourn, we give a destructive message that is far reaching. Accepting loss as a normal part of life is important for optimal mental health for all of us. The more we allow ourselves to grieve when necessary, the more joy we can feel.
Since death is a mystery to all of us, most parents don't quite know how to explain it to their child. You don't have to have all the answers. Just be as simple and direct as you can.
"Grandma's body stopped working and she died....She will never come back...It is very sad....We will miss her...But we can always remember the things she would say to us and how much we love her....People die, but love doesn't die....Our love for Grandma is forever."
A few guidelines to help you talk with your child:
- Don't equate death with sleep. You don't want to give your child fears about going to bed.
- Don't say the person "just went away" or you may create separation anxieties. Reassure the child that their loved one would never have wanted to leave them.
- If you have religious beliefs, by all means share them. But be aware that messages like "She was so good that God wanted her close" can be confusing to children.
- Explain that usually the body is very good at healing itself and getting well. Most illness is not a problem. Death results only when a body is very seriously injured or ill.
- Reassure the child that death is part of the natural cycle of life and that most people live a very long time before they die.
- Reassure the child that the body is no longer feeling anything. Whether the body is buried or burned, the person is no longer present in the body.
There are five stages that all humans go through as we work through grief of any kind. These don't always occur in an orderly pattern, as we can go back and forth between stages.
- Denial - We resist the reality of the loss.
- Anger - We try to avoid feeling the pain by lashing out.
- Bargaining - We begin accepting that the loss is real, but respond to our feeling of powerlessness by trying to gain some control over the situation. A child who is upset over a parent leaving on a business trip may become very controlling about how the parent says goodbye; an adult grieving an impending death may pray for a miracle in exchange for some change in her own behavior.
- Depression - We feel deep sadness, regret, grief as the reality of the loss sinks in.
- Acceptance - Allowing ourselves to feel the grief helps it to diminish. While we will always feel the loss, we are able to remember our loved one with appreciation and gratitude, rather than feeling only pain.
Thankfully, grief is never interminable. Like all feelings, if we let ourselves feel it, grief swamps us, and then, eventually, fades away. Not that grief ever disappears, but we can think of it as a slice of the pie of our lives: at first an important loss pervades the entire circle of our life; but gradually the slice of our life in shadow becomes smaller and smaller. Eventually, we can go on with our lives in a healthy way, although we may always revisit the pain of our loss.
But if we fend it off like an unwelcome visitor, grief doesn’t leave. It takes up residence like a shadow in our psyches, and we become stuck in its bitter influence. Unresolved grief compromises resiliency, threatening to burst out at even minor provocations, leaving us fragile and prone to depression.
Our children, therefore, not only need to grieve sometimes, but need our help to do so.
- Allow children to choose whether to go to a funeral. Describe what it will be like.
- Be aware that kids will often blame themselves for a death. They may test you to see if you will stop loving them or disappear on them. Expect acting out; be patient and understanding.
- Give children ongoing opportunities to ask questions and to talk about their loss.
- Some experts think that children who "talk" with a deceased loved one may heal faster, so if your child reports such conversations, don't "correct" him regardless of your own beliefs. Just listen and honor his experience.
- Reading books about death can be very helpful. (See the link below.)
- Create large and small rituals of remembrance, and to honor the deceased and help them keep them alive in your child's heart.
As the months go by, make a point of mentioning the lost loved one's name in conversation when appropriate, so that it becomes a normal thing. Don't insist that your child grieve when he or she is trying to be happy, but don't act as if the loss didn't happen, either.
Be aware that children grieve differently from adults. They need rituals that offer safe space for grieving, and then a defined end point so they can play again and go on with their lives without guilt.
The kids who successfully live through loss are the ones who find ways to feel connected to the person they've lost AND to go on with their lives. Even children experiencing severe losses need time off from grief. They need safe space, such as school, where they will not be reminded of their loss and can forget for a time. They need to hear that we are there for them when they want to talk, and they need us to normalize talking about the loss, but they also need our permission to go on with their lives.
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