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Think of this… If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve1. Grief and loss are things we all will experience throughout our lives and sadly, children aren’t exempt from having to deal with this. Like adults, children will have their own ways of grieving and just like with us there isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve. Our role with our children is to be there to help with their big emotions and find ways (together) to help them process their grief.
One common mistake many of us, as adults, make when we are trying help children with their grief is to try and “sugar coat” it with euphemisms that just downplay the reality of what they are feeling and experience. Experts say that telling the truth in a simple and direct way is the best approach1. Yes, they are kids, but they are also capable of learning (i.e., School aged kids) and are able to understand and grasp concepts well. We don’t need to (in fact shouldn’t) try and soften our words too much. Using words like “died” in place of “passed away” offers a concrete meaning and minimises room for interpretation and therefore misunderstanding what’s actually going on4.
The use of pictures can be really powerful too, especially for younger children2. Storybooks, toys for play and/or roleplaying can really help children understand better and when they understand better, they are able to move through the “acceptance” phase of their grief.
Grief is hard, really really hard. It’s hard enough for us adults who understand the gravity of death and loss. But imagine having to process it all and not really understanding what’s going on. Children are often scared and need repetition to grasp the truth of their situation3. So, be ready to answer lots of questions and try to answer them truthfully and consistently as this will help them accept and understand their situation better.
If the situation is too heart-breaking for you to “front” up like this, then maybe ask another adult to help talk to the child. It’s important that you trust this person and that they are on the same page with what they will be talking to the child about – as consistency is really important here. But don’t pretend you aren’t sad. The last thing you want a child to think is that they have to suppress their emotions and how they are feeling. This situation, as horrendous as it is, might be an opportunity to teach emotional resilience and make them feel comfortable to express how they are feeling in a way others can understand. So, if you need help, ask for it. Show them you also aren’t perfect and that it’s hard for you too. Being sad or overwhelmed is absolutely normal in tragic circumstances and it’s ok to not be ok all the time.
The other key point in dealing with Grief in Children is that children just do not (and cannot) process grief like adults can2. Children can act out their feelings, especially in the younger years, and they may be hysterical one minute and completely calm and “happy” the next3. We have to remember there’s a lot going on in those little heads of theirs so, like us, you can expect disruptions in sleep, eating and of course behaviour. We can’t expect them to be better at this than we are, can we? You might even see this change of behaviour creep into school and their ability to concentrate – we have to remember they are processing a lot right now and this needs to take some of their attention to cope with, and that’s ok. One less common “side effect” is that we can see children display behaviour of younger children, like thumb sucking or wetting the bed4. This is usually due to their minds trying to protect themselves and, as such, they try to put themselves into soothing situations that help them calm their mind and this often is characterised by the demonstration of actions that may not seem age appropriate2. It’s really no different to adults who need to sleep more or that lash out at others because it’s “all too much”.
One great way for us to set our children up for better success in processing these big emotions more constructively is to talk about how we feel. Whether it’s when we are sad or frustrated or when we are joyful and happy. Recognising emotions is a really important life lesson and building emotionally resilient children is a gift that we can give our children. A good rule in parenting is Modelling; our kids are sponges and if they can replicate our behaviour then they will. When we are at our best, we teach them what good looks like and that’s equally true when we are not. Having said this, we are only human, and no one is perfect, this is bloody difficult stuff, and you need to give yourself a break too as we can’t get it right all the time. Forgive yourself, show them they don’t need to perfect but that they, like you, can keep trying and hopefully brighter days are ahead.
There is lots of help out there for yourself and for our kids, here are some1. that might be of relevance to your situation:
One thing we know for absolute certainty is the support and time are the most critical components to help with Grief in Children4. So do your best to be there, to love them, to help them understand and articulate their feelings. I always say to my girls that “no one, absolutely no one, will ever love you like I do. I will always be your greatest supporter and you can always count on me to listen and help you any way I can”.