How to help children deal with loss and grief – Part I

Help your child deal with loss and grief

Well, to be honest, when I started writing about it, I had no idea that it will take a good amount of time. Also, covering the whole topic in one part was beyond possible. So yes here you go. For part II check: How to help children deal with loss and grief – Part II.

Loss is never easy even for adults. We, adults understand some inescapable losses we have to deal with at some point in our lives – the loss of a loved one, for instance. It still remains a challenge to manage our feelings and stay composed. Grieving is very important in accepting that loss and the time that follows a loss is filled with chaos, trauma, emotional turmoil and behavioral changes. Children, depending on their age, personality and development, react differently. This is why explaining grief to kids, places us in a fix. It is important for kids to know how to manage their feelings and for us adults to help children deal with loss and grief

Let your child experience and process emotions

We, as parents, generally feel an urge to protect our kids from being sad, from experiencing loss and failures. In this attempt of shielding them, what we are actually doing is: limiting their chance of personal and emotional growth, discouraging them from struggle, keeping them from navigating their feelings in a healthy way. For instance, they will know how to forgive and express it, only when we allow and encourage them to express its twin emotion – natural anger. Same goes with grief and ease, failure and success, rage and calmness.  Loss brings along struggle, gain and the possibility of growth.

Possible losses for a child

We cannot neglect the fact that a child, like an adult experiences every kind of emotion = sadness, grief, anger, frustration, love, helplessness, rage. As much as we try to shield children from, experts say we should be open and honest about loss, whether it is a result of losing a pet, a friend, a family member or a serious illness. For a child, even normal transitions like moving to a new place, coming back from a month-long vacation with grandparents (Tell me about it) or welcoming a new baby in the family accumulate sadness and the sense of loss. Loss can also be the result of a tragic experience of abuse, fire, terrorism and racism.

Children cannot navigate their feelings surrounding all kinds of emotions. They need us to guide them through the process of dealing with loss in order to find the way to growth and transformation.

Jeff Nalin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist says:

“We can’t protect our children from experiencing grief, but we can equip them with coping tools and strategies to help them handle loss, now and well into the future.”

Keeping your cool in the chaos

Adults, first need to keep themselves collected. Recognize their own understandings and fears related to loss and grief. Explore your concerns and reflect on your experiences of loss and how was it dealt while growing up, in order to be attentive and responsive to children. Otherwise you will keep them from showing their pain to you and they will fail to manage their emotions in an attempt to deal with loss on their own.

Grieving child

Behavioral changes following a loss

Any of the following behaviors in a child after a loss, indicate that he is having a hard time processing the loss:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns.
  • Significant change in normal behavior.
  • Lack of interest in his favorite activities
  • Changes in academic performance at school
  • Child develops irrational fears.
  • Some talk about the loss, other avoid it.
  • Asking for help with things that he was able to do by himself in the past.
  • Losing self-confidence.
  • Separation anxiety.
  • Complains of physical discomfort .

Here is how with some positive strategies, you can help children deal with loss and grief and start the process of recovery.

Be honest and communicate

First off, be honest and tell the truth. It is better if someone close to the child communicate in a convenient environment to give him sense of security. Communication is powerful. Talk to him so that the child is able to label the emotion and cope with it in a better way the next time he experiences it. If you are willing to talk, children will understand that grief is a natural feeling. They want us to assure them that it’s all right to cry and that the pain will eventually go away.

Give him an honest explanation as much as his age, personality and level of understanding can tolerate. Not all kids can process lots of information. Avoid neutral or code words like “lost”, “asleep” and non-figurative statements like “Nana is always with you even if you don’t see her”. It may frightened him to go to sleep for the rest of his life or spooky feeling of deceased wandering around like a ghost. Kids interpret things differently and it can be confusing for them on so many levels. They may feel betrayed and mistreated. As a result, it may affect their willingness to turn to adults for support and seek guidance.

Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of “The Day Our World Changed”: Children’s Art of 9/11, tells:

“When you don’t tell the truth it makes feelings and information go underground, which is never good. Kids also get crazy ideas because they have to make up information to fill in the blanks. Think of it as an open discussion, not a lecture. Start with some basics to open the discussion, then find out what they know and think, which will lead you to how much they need to know and any incorrect information they may have.”

Facilitate and encourage questions

Children with big questions
Source: https://www.123rf.com/

After the basic honest information, let the child take control because he certainly would have confusions and loads of questions he would like to be answered. It is ok to respond him with real answers but again keeping in mind the age and development of the child. Make him feel comfortable with your verbal and nonverbal behavior that you are always available to tend to his questions about grief and loss. Do not ignore or divert his question or he may develop an understanding that talking about loss, grief or any emotion in general is a taboo. With honesty and openness comes positive development and resilience.   

You will also notice that the child keeps repeating the same question and your responsibility is to keep responding. It’s his way of understanding the loss and adjusting to the void it has created. It is also possible that the child will come back to you with new questions after few hours or days or weeks while he takes his time to process. 

Use simple language

Use direct and simple words that a child can understand. After breaking the sad news to him, pause and let your child take his time to make sense of what has happened.
Dr. Wolfelt suggests using:

“direct, age-appropriate language. Kids use the words dead or dying and they do it much more naturally than we as adults do.” You might take your child on your lap and say, “I have something very sad to tell you. Grandma has died. She’s not alive anymore and we won’t be able to see her and play with her.”

Another things which is very important is to let your child know that Nana or someone who has died is not in pain anymore. If they don’t understand this, It will be traumatic for a child who has lost someone to unexpected tragic death by an illness or accident.

Prepare your child for what’s next

While some children may have an idea what is happening next, others may now. If the death is going to have a significant change in your child’s life and routine, tell him ahead of time to ease his fears and concerns. For instance, If Nana used to pick him from school, try telling that from now on that wouldn’t be possible and that you or someone else will do that.

Explain your child what will happen. How the loved one who is deceased, will be put in a casket or a coffin. The purpose of funeral and burial process. Allow your child to participate in some kind of funeral arrangements, collecting keepsakes or in anything that they want to. It will help him have control when dealing with such upsetting and unfamiliar situations. Make it known that his thoughts and wishes for the loved one matter and will be recognized. Remember to ‘allow’ but not ‘force’ them to participate.  

Dr. Wolfelt says:

“Children, in their effort to integrate loss, naturally start using ceremony, which helps them begin to acknowledge and express what they feel from the inside to the outside. Any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn and should have the same right and privilege to be included.”

Continue reading … Helping children deal with loss and grief – Part II

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