By Kacey Bradley:
Losing a loved one is difficult for anyone, and the process can be more intricate when raising children. Though they experience and express their grief in different ways, they also feel the effects of the loss. Some adults mistakenly assume that children don’t grieve because they don’t show it on the outside, but they do. They experience it in more cyclical stages than adults do, and with these stages comes a range of emotions.
You may wonder how to help your child while you’re likely grieving at the same time. You have a variety of ways to comfort and reassure them during this time — it ultimately depends on their needs. Whichever methods you use, remember to be patient with them and listen to their concerns. Here are eight ways you can help your child through this experience.
1. Encourage Your Child to Express Emotions
Encourage your child to express how they feel through coloring, drawing, writing or playing with dolls. This practice is especially helpful for children who don’t display their grief, as it gives them a healthy outlet for their feelings. Keeping things bottled inside is unpleasant for anyone, and although kids don’t always wear their pain, it can reappear later in unhealthy ways if they don’t manage it in the present.
2. Create Normalcy with Routines
Dealing with grief is a major departure from your lifestyle, and it can cause everyone in your family to fall out of their routines. Most children respond best to structure, so try to maintain your ordinary schedules. Keep dinnertime and bedtime at the usual hours, and let your child have their playtime. Many children who are processing grief will still play as normal, but it’s okay if they aren’t up for it.
3. Use Appropriate Language
In the case of pet loss, telling your child the pet has gone to sleep can be confusing or frighteningif they’re too young to understand. They may become afraid of bedtime and refuse to sleep, and a sleep-deprived child is harder to comfort. Be honest and tell them their pet has died, whether from an accident or with a vet’s help, and let them know the pet isn’t suffering anymore. Though you should be transparent, avoid giving any scary details.
4. Try Grief Therapy
The death of a caregiver or a sibling can be a major blow, and you may struggle with supporting their emotions and yours. Enroll yourself and your child in grief therapy for extra help with managing your feelings and behaviors. Receiving guidance and comfort from an outside source can be cathartic, and you’ll relieve some of the pressure of singlehandedly dealing with everyone’s pain.
5. Explain Death Through Nature
It’ll take time for your child to understand the weight of death if they’re very young, such as preschool age. Use examples within nature to explain it to them (example: flowers and plants blooming and then dying). They’ll understand it better with safe visual representations, and getting out amongst nature can be comforting for you both.
6. Recognize the Signs
Every adult grieves differently, and the same is true for children. Recognize the symptoms of grief within your child and use the appropriate tools to comfort them. Children tend to express sorrow in outburstswith periods of normal behavior in between. Sadness can resurface for a long time afterward — months or years — especially in the case of a firsthand loss, such as a friend’s death. Understand that grief, as with death, never truly goes away — you learn to live with it.
Some older children can regress to bedwetting or baby talk after a loss. See your family doctor about how to constructively deal with these issues if they arise.
7. Acknowledge Your Grief
Kids are intelligent, and though you may hide your feelings for their sake, they’ll pick up on those emotions anyway. Set a good example by acknowledging your grief and working through it. You are likely to feel devastated from losing a parent, and your child will feel that loss too. Show them that feeling sad is okay and let them know you’re in this together.
8. Memorialize the Loved One
Memorializing your loved onehelps your child keep the person or pet close to their heart. Plant a tree or a garden of flowers in your yard as a reminder that they’re always nearby. With your child, build a scrapbook or picture album of the deceased’s photos and memories. Have keepsakes made with special engravings, or create some of your own.
Take it One Step at a Time
Help your child through their grief and stay by their side every step of the way. Some days will be challenging and others, easy; but you can make it through one day at a time. Remember to take time alone to manage your emotions and call on others for help if needed.