As a new mom I want to protect my little girl from all the hardships that may come in life. I logically know that I cannot do this, but the instinct to protect my child is strong. As a mom I want to protect, but as a professional Bereavement Counselor I know all too well that there are some things in life you cannot protect your kids from. I have worked with many parents and guardians who wonder just how to support their child after a loss. Here are 5 important steps to take if you are trying to help your child navigate their grief after a death.
So often in an effort to protect little ones, parents and guardians are not talking openly to them about what is happening. Kids are smart. They know when someone in the family is sick or dying. They often are confused and scared and need the people they love to tell them in age appropriate terms what is happening.
After a death, it is important to talk to your child about what death means, what things will change and what will stay the same, answer their questions, and most importantly, give them the opportunity to grieve. Ask your child if they would like to attend the funeral or memorial service and explain what they can expect to experience if they go.
Many children and teens that I have worked with resent the fact that no one was talking to them about what was going on and they were left to try to figure things out on their own.
Listen to Your Kids
The poet Alfred Brendel is quoted as saying, “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” As important as it is to talk openly to your kids about illness and death, it is even more important that you take the time to really listen and hear what they have to say.
Many parents are surprised to learn what their kids already know about death and how well their children are able to articulate what they are thinking and feeling. This is the time to ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Ask them about what they are feeling, how they are coping, how they would like to honor their loved one, and see what questions they may have.
Learning what younger children know or feel is best done by playing together, drawing, or reading books about loss (some of my favorites are listed below). This is also a great opportunity to correct any inaccuracies. Find out what they know and think and fill in any missing or incorrect information.
Model Appropriate Grief
It is not unusual for a parent to hide their grief from their child thinking that it protects them. If children are experiencing loss for the first time they do not know what thoughts and feelings are normal. If you are not expressing your feelings, they will be confused as to why they feel sad, angry, scared, guilty, or lonely.
Parents should not utilize their children as their support network, but it is okay to be tearful in front of them, to tell them why you are crying, and to model a coping skill that helps when you are feeling upset. Normalize the feelings your child is having.
Most thoughts and feelings are normal after a loss except thoughts of suicide. Encourage them to express their emotions openly and do the same in front of them. Reassure them that you are going to be okay and that it is normal for you to cry or be upset.
Participate in Healing Activities as a Family
This is going to look different for every family based on your relationship with your loved one, family dynamics, personalities, and spiritual belief systems. The important thing is to come together as a family and honor the person who has died.
Some examples include visiting a gravesite if the child wants to, releasing a balloon with messages to your loved one, creating a scrapbook, planting a tree, making a memory box, lighting a candle, or making your loved one’s favorite meal. Anything that connects you and your children to your loved one is good. Many people choose to plan something for special occasions such as birthdays, holidays, or the anniversary of the death, but these can be done anytime your family feels the desire.
After a loss it is vital to get support from those around you. Many people find that close friends and family offer support along with other groups, clubs, schools, or religious organizations. It is important for everyone in the family to have people they can turn to and rely on. Some people find that they need additional support and turn to counseling, support groups, or camps.
Community Hospice of Northeast Florida offers counseling at no charge for up to a year after a loss to anyone in the family. We also offer group experiences including support groups for adults, workshops, a family workshop, and our children’s grief camp, Camp Healing Powers. Finding others who can support and validate grief is such an integral component of healing.
Children who experience loss often feel alone and isolated; group experiences like Camp Healing Powers help them to see that they are not alone, they also develop lasting friendships. No matter where you find support, grief is easier to move through if you and your children are not alone.
These 5 recommendations are a great place to start when you are wondering how to help your child grieve. If you would like more information on children’s grief or the support and services offered through Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, please contact me at 904.407.6222.
Some of my favorite books to read with your grieving child:
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia
A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown & Marc Brown
I Miss You: A First Look At Death by Pat Thomas
Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss by Michaelene Mundy
A Bunch of Balloons by Dorothy Ferguson
Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids: 100 Practical Ideas by Alan Wolfelt
About Katie McConnell
Katie moved from the cold and snow of Maine to attend Florida State University where she received her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work. Since moving to Jacksonville in 2007 Katie has seen her professional dream come to life counseling children and families in need. In 2009 Katie began working with Community Hospice of Northeast Florida focusing her passion on helping families navigate their grief journey. Katie provides individual counseling to adults and children throughout the year and twice a year has the privilege of directing Camp Healing Powers; a fun, meaningful, and healing weekend for children who have experienced a significant loss. In her personal life, Jacksonville has been good to Katie as well. In 2009 she met her husband Chris and even though he’s a Gator, she just couldn’t resist his many charms. This summer they welcomed their first child, a beautiful girl named Celia, and have been loving all the fun, sleepless nights, and adventures this amazing addition brings to their family.