By Alexandra Kennedy MA LMFT
Whether through the loss of a family member, pet or friend, a child's first exposure to grief is often accompanied by a period of moodiness and instability while the child struggles to integrate the awareness that loved ones do in fact die. This is often a confusing, even frightening time for children. It is important for
the parent/child relationship to serve as a sanctuary for the child, where he or she can explore and integrate this new awareness.
To be most effective in supporting their children through this difficult time, parents need to prepare them for what they might experience while grieving, while helping them express their feelings in ways that are natural and safe for them, perhaps through play. It is important to talk to them about what is happening in the family, to be responsive to their questions and concerns, and to help them adjust to changes in their daily lives.
The loss of a loved one can deepen parents’ appreciation of their children. Many parents who experience a loss not only value their time with their children more but also feel a new urgency about improving the quality of their parenting.
Suggestions for Parents
Communicate with your children about death and grief. Read books together that explore death, grief and loss. Taking the time to answer your children’s questions, be as honest and straightforward as your child can understand. Acknowledge what you don’t know. Also, remember that children tend to interpret things literally. For example, if you tell him that his grandmother is “sleeping forever” or is “taking a long trip”, he might assume that if he goes to sleep he too might sleep forever or that grandmother will return from her trip.
Take your child’s developmental stage into account. Children don’t grieve as adults do; they do not have the same capacity as adults to tolerate intense pain over a period of time. Children will grieve in spurts, and may even postpone deep grieving until a later stage of development, according to Anna Muriel, MD, author of “Preparing Children and Adolescents for the Loss of a Loved One”.
Share with your children what to expect if they visit a dying family member. If your child doesn’t want to go, honor her decision. Explore other ways your child can communicate with that family member—for example, drawing a picture, writing a letter, talking through her heart.
Give your children encouragement to grieve and prepare them that they might feel sad or unhappy for awhile. Utilizing play and the imagination, invite them to share their feelings and concerns with you. For example, children can create their own stories or fairytales (refer to chapter 9, “The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss”) where they meet people and animals in their imagination, dialogue with them, and learn new ways of coping from them.
Attempts to protect your children from death and grief can have long lasting negative effects. Include your children in funerals and memorials; it is their right to be included. However, don’t force a child to go to a funeral if he or she doesn’t want to. Likewise, honor your child’s refusal if he or she doesn’t want to participate in any part of the ceremony. For example, if there is an open casket, prepare your child for what they might see and give them the choice to participate or not.
Attend to your own grieving. Your modeling of healthy grieving is more important than you realize. Show your children how you are taking care of yourself in your grief. Integrating grief rituals into a family’s daily life will help your children experience grief as a natural part of the flow of life.
Alexandra Kennedy MA MFT is a psychotherapist in private practice (45 years) and author of “Honoring Grief: Creating a Space to Let Yourself Heal”; “Losing a Parent, The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss”, and “How Did I Miss All This Before? Waking Up to the Magic of Our Ordinary Lives.” Alexandra is a frequent guest on national media. She has taught a popular graduate level course on grief at John F Kennedy University, was a faculty member of University of California Santa Cruz Extension and at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. For more information on coaching and speaking programs visit www.alexandrakennedy.com.
“When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope With Grief” by Marge Heegaard
“The Invisible String” Picture Book by Patrice Karst (Author) and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Illustrator)
“The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss” (chapter 9: Reaching Your Living Children) by Alexandra Kennedy
“The Memory Box: A Book About Grief”
by Joanna Rowland(Author), Thea Baker (Illustrator)
“Preparing children and adolescents for the loss of a loved one” by Anna C Muriel, MD Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Harvard Medical School