Children’s Grief Awareness Day: How to Support Your Child Through a Loss
Losses throughout childhood
One in 14 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling before graduating high school . That statistic does not include the death of extended family members, friends, teachers, or community members. Additionally, it does not account for the non-death losses that impact children throughout their childhood, like a parent’s divorce, moving to a new home or school, losing a friend, puberty, and many other transitions that are seen as a normal part of childhood, but carry with them much loss and grief that tend to go unaddressed.
As supportive adults in a child's life, it is not our job to protect them from the pain of grief, and in truth, it is also not possible. In fact, the simple act of attempting to shield a child from the pain of loss can backfire in several ways such as by their not building a tolerance to appropriate levels of discomfort, or by their grieving in silence because they think grief is unacceptable in the family system. It often surprises parents and guardians when they are told it is our job to help children look straight at grief and loss and begin to open the door to feeling and communicating difficult emotions that come with loss.
Honoring grief as it happens
The goal is not to pretend pain doesn’t happen but rather to process through grief as it presents itself. This means using each situation as a learning and connecting moment, helping the child feel heard and understood, giving them the words for these strong feelings, answering their questions and providing space to heal.
Children will only express their grief when they feel safe doing so. Helping a child feel safe to show grief is easier than you may think, but unfortunately many parents choose not to do the one thing that will help to facilitate this process, which is to show their own grief.
Oftentimes parents want to shield their children from the pain of grief. They stuff down their grief and pretend to be okay in an effort to not burden their children with their own emotions. They hide their tears, avoid talking about the loved one who has passed, and then expect their children to lean on them when they are feeling big emotions.
Then, guess what children do. The adage “monkey see, monkey do” is the most accurate description of children watching their parents suppress their grief and pretend to be fine, and then repeating that parental example in themselves. With the best of intentions, parents end up helping their children to suppress grief, as opposed to expressing it in a safe way.
Tips to support your child in grief
Show your children your grief.
Yes, this is uncomfortable. Yes, this is the opposite of what you may believe about how to “be there” for your child, but trust me when I tell you that children will only know what grief should look like by watching their parents do it. If you, as a parent, have maladaptive strategies for coping with grief, your child is watching, and they will mirror what you do. Be aware of how you want your child to show their grief. Do you want them to feel comfortable crying in front of you? Then you’d better start getting comfortable crying in front of them. Do you want them to be able to ask for help? Then you’d better be willing to show them how it’s done. Sure, at first it feels uncomfortable, maybe even counterintuitive, but I can promise that if you can get past your own mental block about expressing grief, your child will be better for it.
Talk about the person who died.
Just as you want to protect your child from feeling sad, they want to protect you from the same thing. For this reason, they will often avoid talking about the person who has died. The problem with this is that we must talk about the person who died to help in the healing process. Parents can lead by example by bringing up the person who died -- a memory, a silly thing they used to do, something about them that pops into your head. Anything. Just talk about them. The main reason people give for not doing this is that they don’t want to make their child sad. Well, guess what. They’re already sad. Cats out of the bag. What you are doing by not mentioning the person who died is making your child feel like it is not okay to talk about the deceased and causing each of you to grieve alone instead of together.
Use tools to help facilitate conversations about grief and healing.
Sometimes it can feel a little uncomfortable to sit across a table from your child and begin a difficult conversation about grief. Actually, scratch that. That format is always uncomfortable. Kids typically do best with hard conversations when it is not the only thing in front of them. Think about the crazy, off-the-wall things kids say when their hands are busy coloring or playing with Play-Doh. Consider the many tools you can use when talking about grief with your child: photos of their loved one, a stuffed animal to hold onto, a puzzle to pay attention to. The possibilities are endless. In addition to tools that are personal to your child, you may also consider tools made to facilitate grief discussions, like my latest book “Charlie Sue and Marmaduke: A Story of Grief for Children.” This story parallels the grief process and comes with a parent manual that both helps parents ask meaningful questions and helps children work through their feelings of grief, without realizing they are doing it.
As a parent, finding ways to support your child through grief can feel overwhelming. One thing to remember is that you are their role model for all things. If you are not able to process through your feelings of grief, consider enlisting support for yourself so that you can be a support for your child. And, if your grief that doesn’t get easier with time, you may want to consider professional treatment for mood or anxiety symptoms.
One more thing to remember: You can do this!