Helping children cope with loss
While adults experience grief as a prolonged, deep sadness that incorporates shock, disbelief, anger and acceptance (rarely in any orderly pattern), children experience grief in “bearable bits.” A child will seem to bounce from intensity to levity. Somehow, thankfully, children are self-propelled to keep being kids, even in the face of painful realities.
Experts suggest following a child’s lead in terms of how deeply to talk about loss. The adult’s job is to listen more, talk less. If your child needs concrete answers, it is sometimes helpful to use a medical term to clarify the uniqueness of the situation and to reassure that other loved ones (and your child) are healthy and safe.
How much of the sad details to share depends on your child’s proximity to a loss. In situations within your child’s geographic or social radius, consider whether he or she will hear comments from peers or adults outside of the home. If so, then it is best for the child to learn about the event at home and from a parent figure.
The “right time” to talk about difficult subjects is when your child is well-rested, has a full belly, is able to concentrate, and when there is time to be together after the talk.
Repeat back your child’s words to clarify that you really understand his or her ideas, questions and feelings. This respects your child and helps you identify any misconceptions that need to be sorted out. Present information in bearable bits. Go easy on yourself if you feel like you missed an opportunity or wish you had used different words—kids are open to do-overs, as needed. You can always revisit the topic.
Repeated comments and circular conversations may mean your child needs a way to express big feelings. Grab some plain paper and help your child create a book about the loss. Older children may benefit from reading about loss.
All children benefit from rituals that honor their loved one. Gardening, art, written remembrances, acts of kindness, and condolence cards are all activities that model for a child how to navigate the grieving process while providing an active way to process big feelings.
Increased crankiness and obstinacy, even with older children, isn’t just a coincidence. Tantrums and arguments are an expected way to express something big that is on a child’s mind. If your usual techniques are not helping to reduce the intensity of your child’s behavior, then you can assume that this big sad/mad/angry feeling is behind the troublesome behavior. After all, what is more unfair or deserving of argument than losing someone that you love?
Children are not automatically traumatized by exposure to loss, particularly when they are helped to feel and express what they need to feel. Tricky things can be managed. Therapy is not required for most families, but can be a helpful resource if you have a particular concern or need to find the right words. Reach out—our community has many helpful resources.
Cleveland Heights resident Shari Nacson is a freelance editor and clinical social worker in private practice, and a child development specialist at Safe and Sound Schools (www.safeandsoundschools.org). Along with colleague Devra Adelstein, Nacson has donated her time to lead discussion groups for Heights families and professionals who have known and cared for Rebecca Meyer and her family.