Teaching a Child to Grieve
There is nothing more painful than saying goodbye to someone we love. For many people, the first person to die is a grandparent or great-grandparent. Many times this happens when we are children, new to life in general… and most definitely new to loss. But just because they are young doesn’t mean children shouldn’t be taken seriously when it comes to grieving. Even if they aren’t able to express themselves verbally, the youngest among us are just as affected by a death in the family as the rest.
For that reason, learning to cope with the loss of a family member, friend, or even family pet at an early age is imperative to developing healthy coping mechanisms throughout life. As the parent or caregiver of a young person, there are a few things we should remember as we attempt to walk a child through the grieving process and help him or her learn how to deal with the many emotions that accompany a loss.
Seek to Understand, Then to be Understood
The first things parents and caregivers of children, pre-teens, and adolescents must understand is that young people process death differently than adults. While adults tend to experience sadness and depression that gradually lessens over time, children may be sad one minute and happy the next. This back and forth between emotions is actually a healthy coping mechanism that prevents a young person from becoming overwhelmed. Additionally, some children may experience regression in the form of sleep patterns, bedwetting, or baby talk.
Still, many children and young adults will experience the same range of emotions as adults when someone close to them passes away, including guilt, anger, anxiety, and depression. Also like adults, it is healthy for children to be able to express those emotions as they feel them. Encourage a child to talk about their feelings, and don’t hesitate to start the conversation by sharing your own. Most importantly, ensure your child knows the death is not his or her fault. It’s easy for them to flash to an angry memory where they shouted an angry thought or “wish,” and come to the conclusion that they have actually caused the condition.
Chances are, if your child is dealing with the loss of a loved one, so are you. It can be challenging, to say the least, to take care of both yourself and your child in this difficult time. Whether you’re having trouble dealing yourself or you just want to ensure your child is healing, it’s okay to ask for help. Professional counselors and therapists specializing in grief are available to help both you and your children.
You may also want to allow your child to spend time with other grieving family members as they heal. We all grieve differently and, until a child knows how to handle the emotions that come after a loss, it may help to have some examples. By experiencing first hand how other family members are handling the loss, a child can develop their own way of coping. If a child sees an aunt pursuing healing by participating in a hobby or a cousin attending a grief support group, he or she may choose to do the same.
Give it Time
In addition to giving children the tools and support they need to heal, they also need time. Your child’s emotional timeline is not something you can predict, and it may be difficult for them to understand prolonged feelings of sadness or guilt. Be sure to continue conversations even after your child has returned to school and regular activities. Remember the loved one by looking through pictures and sharing memories, which is also a great conversation starter.
As natural as death is, there are aspects of the grieving process that can and should be taught. How a child learns to handle the loss of a loved one can set them on the path to healthy coping throughout their life, and that’s what every parent or caregiver wants for the children they love.