Do you remember as a young child when you lost someone you loved? Whether it was your first dog or your grandma, the pain was definitely there. Many children are exposed to death in their early years initially from cartoons, tv shows, and movies. The complex concept of death is often difficult for kids to understand. Today’s GKIS article covers some basics about children, grief, and how to help them through it.
Every child will grieve at some point.
Whether we like it or not our children will have to face a time where they must grieve. One day their fish will die, their friend may pass, maybe even a grandparent will pass away. Parents are the most important touch-point during a time like this. Knowing how to manage it can make a big difference in child outcome.
When I was 10 years old the biggest person in my world would become a memory to me, my dad. On January 22, 2009, my dad lost his battle with stage-4 colon cancer. I remember it like it was yesterday, from my feelings to the headband I was wearing when I found out. The hurt and pain I felt knowing I would never be able to smell his hair pomade, take a Walmart trip with him just so I could sneak a J-14 magazine into the cart, or learn the game of football from him with dreams of playing for his favorite team, the Raiders. My dad was my world and just like that … he was gone.
For a long time growing up I was angry. I would act out and talk back to my mom, you name it I did it. I did not really understand how to deal with my emotions and felt that I needed to be strong for my mom and older sister. I would brush off his death like I did not care a single bit, but how could I not? My mom tried everything to help me, from taking me to therapy, encouraging me to play sports, and even retail therapy, but nothing made it better. Of course, I had many times where I was happy and laughing because yes, my life did go on, but I always felt a void in my heart.
Looking back now, I wish I could have understood the process more. Maybe with more support, my mom could have reached me better or helped me feel more understood. As I got older one of my goals was to become a children’s therapist, hoping to specialize in children who are grieving the loss of a loved one because I know first-hand how that feels. Every now and then when I think of a new way of grieving, I write it down. Writing today’s GKIS article helped me heal a little bit. I hope you find some of these helpful for you too.
Helping Your Child Overcome Grief
Try to go about your daily life as normal as possible.
Your child is already having to cope with the absence of somebody they loved. So rather than change other things in their life that they may miss as well, like friends or school, try to stick to your daily regimen. The day after my dad passed away my mom encouraged me to go to my softball game. Although it was painful to see the empty seat next to my mom, it actually helped distract me for some much-needed temporary relief.
If past routines are too hard, start new ones!
If you are unable to stick to your daily routine because the pain of the missing loved one is just too great, creating new ideas may offer a fresh start. Anticipating events can be almost as much fun as doing them. When you come up with an idea, like building a sandbox, painting a room, or by making an outside fort, put it on the calendar. Give your child something to look forward to.
Show your child that you love them!
Be there for your child and remind them how much you love them each and every day by doing these small things:
- Leave them a small note in their sack lunch so they know you are always thinking of them.
- Greet them with an enthusiastic smile and a hug in the morning.
- Read them one too many stories and kiss them goodnight.
- Treat them occasionally with an unexpected surprise from the store, like a cupcake or little toy.
- Spend extra family time together, like on a hike or a special trip to their favorite ice cream shop
- Leave love notes for them under their pillow.
It will be tough at times.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is difficult no matter what age you are. There are many complexities that come along with grieving and moving forward when losing someone you love. Although, you are probably just as heartbroken as your child, grief can manifest differently for different people. Although you will have challenging moments sometimes where you won’t know the next step, it’s okay. Breathe…you are not alone.
For extra coaching and support, it’s okay to ask for help from family, clergy, your child’s teacher, and even a psychologist. Sometimes children will speak more openly with someone they don’t have to worry may burst into tears themselves.
Teaching your child the concept of death may be challenging.
This is one thing about my dad’s death I struggled with for a long time. Like many young children who go through a loss of a loved one, I began to fear death and would constantly ask my mom if I was going to die too.
Children are curious and usually speak their minds with no filter. So, when asking about death
and loss be prepared to be asked very vague and challenging questions. Make sure you always give a thought out and complete explanation.
Questions you may get asked:
- What is death?
- Why do people die?
- Where do they go when they die?
- Will I die, too?
- Can’t they come back?
It is important, in any which way you answer these questions, to keep it positive while also being straightforward with your child. Dr. Bennett calls it honesty with discretion. Kids get a lot of comfort if you tell them they’ll see their loved one again, but not for a very long time. Follow up that their loved one will always be with them, held close. It just won’t be as easy to see them.
Teach them the concept of death in a positive way. Be honest about your emotions while assuring them of their safety and that they are loved. Letting your children see you grieve sometimes will normalize healthy emotions. You don’t have to suppress emotion completely, all the time. It’s OK to be genuine and even accept soothing from them sometimes.
Still feel a disconnection.
Grief is a very normal and healthy process. However, kids and adults can sometimes sink into what psychologists call complicated bereavement. Complicated bereavement is grief that escalates into impairment and may benefit from professional clinical treatment. If you are wondering if it’s time to seek clinical help, ask yourself simple questions:
- Are they sad more than half of the time?
- Are they not eating or failing to gain or lose weight?
- Are they having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much?
- Are they complaining about intrusive thoughts or frequent nightmares?
- Are they refusing to go to school or do homework?
- Are they moving like they have no energy or agitated often?
Do they act tired, like they have no energy and can’t make decisions? Have they engaged in self-harm or threatened suicide?
Do’s and Don’ts When Helping Your Child Grieve
- Allow your child to grieve in their own way whether it be video games or crying into their pillow.
- Mix curiosity with caring. This will not only show your child that you too are saddened by the loss, but it will also help your child express their feelings to you.
- Separate your grief from theirs. It may sound selfish but, in this time, it will be beneficial to your child to see you hold yourself together as much as you can. They are in a foreign state of mind and will need to look up to you in how to move forward.
- Be careful with your actions. Children are absorbent and pay close attention. Try not to grieve in ways that will not be beneficial to your child, like overindulging with alcohol, checking out, or having huge meltdowns in front of your child.
- Praise! Oftentimes children develop new skills in this time of grieving. Be sure to mention how good they got at painting, you like their new makeup style, or even how easily they were able to pick up a sport.
- Consider online support groups if there is a deficit of live support in your area.
- Do not insist on a certain time or way to mourn. Everyone mourns in their own way.
- Tell your child the truth, don’t say that their grandma is just sleeping or that their dog went on a walk. Kids can take things too literally and blame themselves or become afraid.
- Children need to be children. Don’t make them take on adult duties. Taking away their childhood will be seen as another loss for them.
- Don’t be quick to punish. Your child may act out to elicit your attention. This sounds crazy but normalize their actions. This will help them stop this bad behavior.
- Don’t knock the idea of support groups. Children being exposed to other children who are also experiencing loss may benefit from a sense of camaraderie.
If you live in California, Hawaii, or Idaho and need some warm, therapeutic support, Dr. Bennett offers teletherapy sessions. Go to DrTracyBennett.com for more information. A grieving child is not the only one to learn something new, you are too. Knowing how to help, nurture, and care for your child during this time is not easy but with simple steps, it can become second nature. Keep going and don’t give up on yourself, you’re doing great! Thanks to Danielle Rivera for contributing this GKIS article.
Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels
Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels
 Ehmke, Rachel. Helping Children Deal with Grief. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-deal-grief/
 Nathan, Edy (2019). When Children Grieve. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tales-grief/201903/when-children-grieve
 “Corona Virus: Daily Change,” accessed May 19, 2020, https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=how+many+people+have+died+of+covid+19&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8