Childhood Grief: Parenting Tips for Coping with Loss

The first time my kids experienced death was when their preschool teacher passed away from cancer. She was very private about her health – none of us even knew she was sick, other than the chronic back pain she clearly suffered with on a daily basis. She was a wonderful woman: loving, warm, friendly and all the things a teacher should be. She always lent an ear to listen to our troubles, a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on. She reminded me of my mother, a figure of safety and comfort. Plus, she was only in her 60s — it seemed like she had the whole world ahead of her.

So, when I received a text from another mom stating that the teacher was in the hospital and not expected to make it, the shock and sting sent tears to my eyes. I immediately sat my kids down and explained her condition. My kids responded differently. The oldest, who was five years old at the time, was clearly more sympathetic than my youngest, who seemed unfazed. Nevertheless, I made a special effort to make sure they felt safe and secure, letting them know that if they had any questions, they could ask me. The most important thing was that they knew I was there for them.

The teacher died a few days later. When the call finally came in, I was more prepared for the loss, although it is never easy to respond to it once it’s real. I choked up and, through tears, told my kids the news. That’s when my son did something completely surprising: he said he was sorry, hugged me and patted my back. I wondered how a 5-year old could be so mature. I made sure to talk with them in depth about the teacher, recalling the great things about her and how blessed we were to have her in our lives. My kids found comfort in knowing she was not suffering or in pain any longer.

“Parents need to know it’s okay to show their emotions in front of their children,” said Liz Hopkins, a Clinical Manager/Social Worker at a children’s mental health agency in Ontario, Canada. “They are role modeling that it is okay to express and show feelings. This allows children to open up and share their feelings too. Parents sometimes worry if they get too distraught, their children will feel they are out of control, and not be able to be there for the children.”

Grief is a normal emotional state. Depending on a child’s age and developmental stage, they may not have the words or experience to express how they are feeling, and may show grief in different ways.

Whether it is a pet dying, a friend moving away or the loss of a family member, the following are recommendations for parents when their child has experienced a loss:

1. Pay attention to your child. Be there for them, pay attention to their feelings and encourage them to share their feelings. Let them know you are there for them anytime (they may not be ready to talk when you ask, but that doesn’t mean they won’t want to talk at some point).

2. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help. You may be surprised by what they would like help with. It may be as simple as just holding them, staying in their room until they fall asleep, helping them draw pictures or write a memorial story.

3. Encourage them to talk openly about their feelings and memories. Without any pressure, assure them that you are there for them whenever they need you.

4. Allow the child the opportunity to share their feelings. Sharing feelings does not have to be just through conversation. For example, your child could write a story, make a memory box or photo album, or draw pictures. Children need an avenue that works for them to get their feelings out — and talking doesn’t always work for everyone.

5. Encourage, allow and support the child’s involvement in any ceremony or celebration of the pet/person with whom they have lost. Depending on the situation, it’s important to let them attend a funeral, a memorial service, church service, reception or even a tree planting. Trying to shelter children from the reality of death is not healthy or helpful. This is part of the normal grieving process and most children adjust better when allowed to participate in ‘goodbyes.’ Not including a child in this part of the process can leave them confused, upset, left out or angry.

Suggestions of what parents are encouraged not to do:

1. Omit unnecessary platitudes such as, “Oh don’t worry, everything will be ok; you will get through this we all do; we will get you a new pet; your grandma lived a good long life; there is no point in crying – that can’t bring your cat back.” Those kinds of statements are not helpful to most children or people in general.

2. Don’t try pretending everything is fine or that it will ‘blow over’ as a way to help children forget the loss.

Some children adjust to loss with the support and help of family, friends or caregivers. Others can benefit from therapy, grief counseling or involvement in a bereavement group with other children who have had similar loss issues. The reality is that grief lasts for varying times for children.

Regardless of the type of loss, parents need to appreciate how deeply their children can feel and to let them express it in their own way, in their own time. It can include crying, yelling, acting out or withdrawing. There is no real right way to grieve, there are just many ways children express their feelings. Kids can be incredibly resilient, but don’t mistake that for not grieving.

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