Children thrive in a loving family environment.
How devastating it is for them when this secure atmosphere gets ripped apart by death.
Of course, you’re probably struggling with your own emotions surrounding the loss—anguish, worry, anxiety, depression. But your children feel very much the same… and beyond.
For many obvious reasons, losing a loved one with whom they had formed a close bond is generally more distressing for children than for adults.
Often left to interpret the information by themselves from pieces of overheard conversations, children can easily feel confused and fearful by the distorted conclusions they reach.
As a caring parent, how can you best help your children face the reality of death and loss and support them in their grief?
Parenting During the Stress of a Grievous Loss
Consider some of the most important ways you can be supportive when your children grieve the loss of a loved one.
Maintain a Normal Routine and Schedule
Keeping schedules as consistent as possible helps children feel secure when major—and often unexpected—changes are happening in their lives.
That includes sticking with fair, reasonable, and age-appropriate discipline. Slacking off on rules and boundaries is exactly the wrong thing to do. In fact, neglecting discipline during stressful times can cause a lot of confusion and insecurity in children.
However, also be aware that your children may manifest unusual and/or extreme reactions due to their distress. Respond with compassion and understanding, not with punishment.
Communicate with Honest, Open, and Clear Language
Children need to be told age-appropriate facts. When talking about the death of a loved one, stick to the truth. Often children tend to fill in omissions with their own ideas, which can lead to misconceptions.
Also, remember that simple, clear, and calm words are much easier to understand for them than abstract terms. Hence, be careful about using expressions such as “lost,” “sleeping,” or “gone away.” Softening the language without clarifying what the terms really mean can confuse and even frighten young children. In fact, they may become afraid of going to sleep or start feeling abandoned.
One of the best things you can do to promote open communication is to encourage your children to ask questions. Answering all of them as truthfully as possible helps your children feel secure.
And if you don’t know the answer, admit that as well. Honest answers build trust and respect.
Respect and Accept Your Children’s Feelings
Children think and grief in a different way than adults. For this reason, you may not always understand the feelings that stress and grief trigger in your children. They may fluctuate greatly from positive to negative.
Therefore, expect your children to act like children, not like adults.
Avoid correcting or judging them for expressing what may seem to be unreasonable emotions or for acting out. Instead, be patient and empathetic, giving your children time and space to work through their feelings.
A calm and compassionate parental response will help them return to more balanced behavior and thinking faster.
Encourage and Validate Expression of Emotions
Children need to be able to grief in their own way without being labeled a crybaby or wimp.
Instead of chastising or ridiculing your children for the way they express their feelings, help them to understand how they can express them appropriately.
For example, verbally sharing your own feelings in an open and proper way models healthy behavior. But balance discussions about their grief by incorporating the past, present, and future circumstances connected to the death.
And remember that verbal expressions alone are not helpful to all children. Many feel more comfortable working through their feelings and expressing themselves through writing, art, and play.
Set Aside Time for Your Children to Socialize
Avoid becoming unavailable and too distracted by your own grief, inadvertently creating an additional sense of loss for your children.
Instead, make your children feel secure by showing them how important they are to you. Set time aside to socialize and have uninterrupted, one-on-one time with each child. And encourage them to also socialize with other children their age, providing a healthy environment for physical and creative release.
Understanding that it’s okay for their own lives to go on helps minimize feelings of guilt. Furthermore, it also lets them feel valued and validated.
Clearly, dealing with grief and loss due to the death of a loved one is by no means easy for adults. It’s even more complicated, confusing, and uncomfortable for children.
By offering kind and compassionate support to your children as they grieve, you can help them now and prevent them from dragging their unprocessed feelings with them into adulthood.