As children, many of us were fortunate enough to have not had to experience the loss of a loved one. Today this seems more common place where children do experience many losses ranging from grand parents, parents, to peers and siblings. If you can think of how tormenting these times of loss are for adults, imagine being a child, already unaware of too much, and now being faced with such confusion.
Reassurance – When a child loses someone close, a whirlwind of emotion and confusion begins. They have a lot of questions that they need answered. In addition, they are fearful of what’s to come. One of the most important things that they need is a reassurance. Children need to know that one loss does not mean that they are going to loose more loved ones. They need to know that the remaining adults in their lives are not going away too. It is however important that people don’t make promises that they cannot keep. Statements like “I’m never going anywhere” or “I will never leave you” should be used with caution if at all. The reason for this is that we don’t control our tomorrows. As much as people may not want to be thinking of their own mortality during times of bereavement, it is important to remember that possibility. Many families have experienced the loss of more than one member in a brief period. With that knowledge we would not want to set children up for such disappointment of loosing someone they were just told would “never go away”.
Reassure children that their family is safe. Remind the child that there are people who love them and will be there for them. Especially when dealing with the loss of a parent, they need to know that they will be taken care of, and have this shown to them continuously. Whether it’s feeding them, bathing them or tucking them in at night, when children lose a parent, it’s important for them to see that these basic necessities will still be taken care of by doing them as they have been done. As much as possible stick with their schedule. The grieving child may not be hungry at six o’clock, but food should be available to them at that time just like it used to be before mom or dad died. Try to keep a sense of normalcy in their day, so they know that even when some things have changed, some things will stay the same.
Acknowledge and adapt – Children will experience grief and loss in different ways. The difference may be a result of their age, level of understanding, individual personality, or a combination of factors. Don’t presume to know. Let the child share it. Some children may show signs of detachment, where they don’t show sadness. That’s ok. That does not mean they don’t care or that they are not hurting. It’s just a coping method. Acknowledge them and offer them the opportunity to be involved. Other children (especially boys) may show signs of anger or even aggression. If that’s how they grieve then give them an outlet to release that energy. Get them out and about. Provide opportunities that allow them to be active. However; having this as their coping method does not mean that you will have to allow them to break house rules consistently. For example, you would not want a child to suddenly be allowed to hit others without consequences, because at some point you would want that behavior to stop and may not be able to change it. The best way to break a habit is to not let it form from the start.
Sadness is the expected reaction to loss, but in children it is most difficult, because it can be hard to know how to help that child. Let the child know that it’s ok for them to be sad. Some times parents will tell children that the deceased “went to heaven” and that they should not be sad. In many cases the parent who is saying that is still experiencing their own sadness. Don’t place that burden on a child, because now in addition to their sadness they may be feeling guilt for not being able to be “happy that grandma went to be with Jesus“. Tell them that it is ok to be sad, but also provide some opportunities for them to come out of their sadness. With most kids, friends can help. Keep them in the vicinity of other children, without pushing them out there to be social. Let their best friend(s) come over. When possible, pick the two “best best friends”, that way the child is not pressured to entertain guests, since the two friends can entertain each other.
Inclusion- As parents and guardians, it is normal to want to shield children from the things that you think may bring them pain; especially those things that cause distress to even adults. While it is normal to want to shelter children, it is very important for them to be involved in the grieving process and preparations involved. As adults, you will know what is age appropriate to share with each child, and how it should be shared. The child may also display certain interests in getting involved. It is ok to involve them, to the degree that they can handle it. If a child is old enough and wants to, it’s ok to let them help in picking a picture to place on the cover for the program for the memorial service. Some children may be able to help in picking the clothes from the parent’s closet, but that is if the child is ready and interested.
During times of bereavement in most cases there is a gathering of family and friends. With the work and planning for final services there is also a sense of community and family togetherness. Children should be allowed to be included in some of these events as they help reassure them that they will be fine and that they are still surrounded by loved ones. Including them also allows children to go through the process of reaching closure. If the child is old enough and wants to do it, let them read something at grandma’s funeral. This can help them move toward reaching closure.
Nurture – After the final events have concluded, and the company have stopped coming around, take the time to nurture children. Just like the sadness and feelings of loss persist in adults, they do in children. Unlike adults they may not understand that it will become more manageable. When the crowds have dispersed, it is even more important for children to feel cared for, because this reinforces the initial message that they are going to be fine and that they are loved.
Sharing memories and funny stories is also helpful for children. It allows them to briefly escape back to happier times as they work through the emotions. Talk to them. Check in with children. Ask them how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. If the child has a particular talent or just a particular activity they enjoy, they may use that as an outlet. Provide opportunities for them to have access to that outlet.
As always, pay close attention to children who are grieving and when it is believed that they may need professional help, get that for them. Whether it’s support groups, individual or group counseling, as soon as the child seems to need more than what the family can offer, seek professional help. If nothing else, a qualified professional may be able to shed more light on techniques that may be most helpful to your child. Still, parents know their children best. In these trying times bring in the RAIN: Reassurance – Acknowledge and adapt – Inclusion – Nurture
© 2009 Judi Cinéas