Losing a loved one is always hard. The emotional impact isn't lessened when loss happens to a child. Even though we understand that the death of a parent is one of the most traumatic events that can happen in a child's life, we often feel at a loss how to help. Our feelings of helplessness are intensified when we are also grieving. When a child loses her parents, she may be discouraged from speaking about the deceased parent because it can make our own pain unbearable. It's also possible it is done because of the mistaken notion we are helping the child get over her loss more quickly by discouraging her from dwelling on her loss.
For children, it can be challenging to communicate their grief and their behavior becomes their vocabulary. In fact, behavioral problems in children are a common response to grieving. This creates a catch 22: at the very time children need the most reassurance, acceptance and love is at the very time their behavior receives condemnation, criticism and rejection.
So, how can we help? Here are some basic suggestions to help children through their grieving process:
It's important to recognize that a child's life has been dramatically changed. There isn't any amount of preparation that readies them to have their parents gone from their lives. Allow them to talk about their parent who is no longer here. Sometimes, just talking about the parent is a way for the child to keep his parent close to him. As one six year old girl asked, "If I'm not suppose to talk about Mommy anymore, how can I remember what she looks like?" Some children find it difficult to begin the conversation or aren't able yet to talk about their loss. You can help by sharing stories about her parent who is no longer here. For young children, you can turn it into a game of, " I remember" and share a special memory. Encourage them to share a memory either by telling a story or by drawing a favorite memory.
ANSWER QUESTIONS IN WAYS THEY CAN UNDERSTAND
Death is complex and overwhelming at any age. It can be even more so in this era of TV where a child can see his favorite actor die only to reappear in another TV show days later.
Try to avoid terms that can be confusing or even frightening to a child. For instance, telling a child death is like going to sleep and never waking up can cause a child to become afraid of going to sleep. An adult may be comforted by the idea that a loved one has been called home to God. A child, on the other hand, has a hard time understanding how God could be so cruel as to take her Mommy away.
As a parent's illness becomes more advanced, the ability to cope with the needs and demands of parenting diminish. This often leads to the child taking on responsibilities and carrying emotional weight that is far beyond their years. These significant changes produce intense emotions including, fear, worry, sadness, resentment and anger. Acting out and becoming difficult to control, withdrawal, tears are all indications of the grief process at work. Talk to the child or use activities to help the child understand what is happening. Children are often baffled and frightened by their change of behavior, too. Provide opportunities for the child to be a child by arranging activities that the child will enjoy.
PROVIDE REASSURANCES ABOUT THE FUTURE BUT DON'T MAKE PROMISES THAT CAN'T BE KEPT
Children need to know they are going to be cared for and that there will be someone there for them. There is an overwhelming desire to want to make "it all better." Sometimes "all better" turns out to be far from perfect. Yet, it's better to be honest than to create unrealistic expectations. As one young man remembering what is childhood was like after the loss of his parents said, "people promised me I would stay with them forever. But forever turned out to be a short time. My childhood was about moving from one relative to another, constantly changing schools, and having to get use to a different life with every move."
REASSURE THEM THE DEATH WASN'T THEIR FAULT
Young children often feel responsible when bad things happen. Reassure them the death wasn't their fault. I was with a young boy who was devastated after his Mom died. He refused to talk about her and had become a problem at school. As we sat together, he finally whispered, "I've got a secret." It took him a few minutes before he continued. He finally said, "I think it was all my fault that she got sick and passed away. I fought with my brothers all of the time and it would make her head hurt and that made her sick. When I would stop fighting, her headache would get better but then I would start fighting again and she would get sick again."
GATHER FAMILY PICTURES AND PLACE THEM IN A SCRAPBOOK TOGETHER
This provides the opportunity for the child to share memories of her parent(s) in a non-threatening way. It also gives her something to keep close and look through when she feels especially lonely.
Rose Winters has extensive nonprofit experience, and currently works with the Gladys Taylor McGarey Medical Foundation working to create a more responsive healthcare system. She serves on the board of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation and addresses end of life issue and provides support to those who are grieving. She has had extensive experience working with individuals with a terminal diagnosis and their families. She is also a documentary film producer. Her film, "Finding Hearts at Peace," was recently purchased for broadcast in the Middle East. She continues as a consultant to governmental and nonprofit agencies addressing the concerns of children and youth.