Death is a fact of life. Each and every one of us is touched by grief and loss. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve built up a series of coping frameworks we can use to help us make our way through the complex feelings a death in the family can leave us with. Our children, however, have not had an opportunity to build these coping frameworks and require our assistance in dealing with the loss. What techniques can we use to help our children?
Here are some suggestions on how you can help your child deal with grief and loss
Somebody close to the child should tell her the truth as soon as possible, without euphemisms. Children take our words literally; using phrases like “they went away” or “they’ve been lost to us” will likely confuse your child into thinking the family member is literally just lost and will come back. This is very unsettling news, so make sure the person telling the child what happened is close to the child. It should be done in comfortable, familiar surroundings.
Be prepared to answer many questions in the coming days, weeks, and even months. Children may occasionally ask if the person is really dead. They’re not having troubles accepting the loss. In general, they’re really just checking to make sure the story isn’t changing on them.
Explain what to expect at the upcoming funeral or wake. Children should always be allowed to attend the social activities planned for the family and friends of the deceased; these social activities evolved over time to support the social network of the deceased. Children can benefit from these activities, but it’s important to not force them to attend, or force them to participate in any activities they are not comfortable with (such as touching or viewing the body).
Your child may be feeling the same emotions you are; provide the support your child needs. At the time that the news is imparted, it’s not unusual for the full impact of the news to not fully “hit” the child. Explain the feelings of grief they may experience in the coming days or weeks. Encourage them to let their feelings out. You may end up crying together, providing each other moral support. One thing to keep in mind: your child may make causal connections that are not realistic. For example, they may feel guilty about the death because they may have had negative thoughts about the deceased. It’s only through open lines of communication that you can be aware of these feelings and be able to put them to rest.
Help your child remember the good things about the deceased. Children may have trouble “remembering” the deceased in their absence. Pictures of the departed can help your child retain an emotional connection. (This is useful in other types of separation as well, such as divorce.) Make sure to tell your child happy memories about the deceased. This can help your child to remember the deceased in a positive light.
In western cultures, suicide is looked down upon and, due to this, we often have issues in discussing the suicide openly with others, especially children. It’s important to treat a suicide like any other death, and to explain it to any children involved directly in a way that reserves judgment. The isolation which can surround the survivors of a suicide can be far more damaging than the death itself. Therefore, it’s important to provide children as much support as you can.
To sum up, children experience the same grief and loss adults do, but they do not have the social and mental frameworks necessary to properly process that grief. The handling of grief and loss are a natural part of growing up; providing them the necessary support can make the difference in how they handle death.
At times, the loss process can seem to take on a life of its own with the adult or child struggling to cope and resume their previous level of functioning. If this sounds like you or a loved one please feel free to contact me as I am happy to assist you.