The sudden death of sports icon Kobe Bryant left us with a rush of emotions – disbelief, sadness and grief – emotions so potent that we wrestled with our feelings of emptiness, searching for answers – and often, finding none.
Painful, too, are the questions children ask. As parents and caregivers, we want to be strong for them. Yet when our own tears flow, we may want to flee to the shelter of our room and close the door – thereby shutting them out to open up about their own emotions.
Helping Children with Grief & Loss
Our children grieve, too, despite their standard response to every question most of us have heard often: “Everything’s fine.”
Did you know? Kids absorb 75% of the tools they’ll likely use for life in dealing with grief situations by the time they’re just 2-3 years old. The way we respond when our children experience a loss can have a profound impact for the rest of their lives.
So how can we help our children deal effectively with the experience of loss? Listen with your heart, not your head.
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”
– Vicki Harrison
Signs of Grief in a Child: What to Know
Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern of behavior.
Some of the Most Common Losses That Likely Will Occur in a Child’s Life
(in the sequence most likely to occur):
- death of a pet
- death of a grandparent
- major move
- divorce of a child’s parents
- death of a parent(s)
- death of a playmate, friend, or relative
- debilitating injury to the child or to someone important in the child’s life
The initial reaction of a child to a death is a sense of numbness. What lasts longer – and is more universal- is the reduced ability to concentrate.
Other common reactions to grief & loss are:
- changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- roller coaster of emotional energy – highs and lows
- depression, lack of energy
- overreactions to everyday situations
- low grade anger; irritability
- isolation, lack of interest in friends/family
- repetitive behaviors
Grief also sets us up for conflicted feelings…
Have you ever experienced the death of a loved one following a painful illness? You may have felt grateful they were no longer in pain, yet your heart was broken because that person is no longer in your life. The result? Conflicting feelings of relief and sadness. Children experience this too.
Other losses and their conflicted feelings:
- moving: a child may miss familiar things from the old neighborhood, yet love the new one
- loss of trust
- loss of control
- loss of safety
(the last three losses are the most altering, tend to be hidden and often do not surface until later in life through therapy)
Losses are individualized pains: none can be compared to the other.
How to Help Your Grieving Child
There is no one size fits all response to grief – in children or in adults. These simple tips can serve as a guide to help you respond with compassion and grace.
- Listen with your heart, not your head.
- Allow all emotions to be expressed without judgment, criticism or analysis.
- Recognize that grief is emotional, not intellectual.
- Avoid the trap of asking your child what is wrong, because he/she will automatically say “nothing.”
- Adults go first. Telling the truth about your own grief will make your child feel safe about opening up, too.
- Remember that each of your children is unique and each has a unique relationship to the loss event.
- Be patient. Don’t force them to talk.
- Never say “don’t feel sad” or “don’t feel scared. Sadness and fear, the two most normal feelings attached to loss of any kind, are essential to being human.
Know that you don’t have to travel alone on the journey – and let your child know that too. Help is available.
Always remember to keep your faith muscles strong. Whatever God brings us to, He will lead us through.
“Losing my mother at such an early age is the scar of my soul. But I feel like it ultimately made me into the person I am today. I understand the journey of the life. I had to go through what I did to be here.”
– Mariska Hargitay
*The Grief Recovery Method has a book entitled When Children Grieve which was referenced in this post. I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about helping children through the grief process. You can find it online at Amazon.
Please consider signing up for a 4-week Virtual Helping Children With Loss 1-on-1 program.
This comprehensive program is designed to teach parents, teachers, and others who work with children the necessary tools to help them effectively deal with their broken hearts, no matter what loss they are facing.
Click this link and schedule a heart-to-heart conversation for more details and to learn about other online grief recovery support opportunities.