Losing someone you love in death is heartbreaking, no matter how old you are. As adults, most of us have learned coping skills that can navigate us through the process of grief and healing. But children don’t have the life experience necessary to handle the process all by themselves.
As parents, our protective instinct is to shield our kids from anything that will hurt them. But then, when a death occurs, all of the sudden, it’s time to help our children cope with loss. Whether it’s a grandparent, a friend, an uncle or aunt, or a parent, children need to grieve just like we do.
But it is so hard to know what we can say to our children: words that can help them cope, realize it’s okay to grieve, and heal.
It’s important that they understand that their future is still going to be a bright one despite the loss.
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I’ve watched a number of Ted Talks dealing with grief, and I’ve gathered a few valuable insights from the experiences of the speakers – things we can say, or not say, to our kids to help them heal with love.
1) Against Grieving in Silence – by Rachel Stephenson
When she was 5 years old, Rachel Stephenson lost her mother.
‘You can call me Mom now,’ her grandmother told her.
But no. That was not okay.
Rachel tells the story of how she, at a young age, understood 3 things: 1) Grief needs to be heard, 2) Children need the truth about death, and 3) Her mother was not replaceable.
I didn’t realize it was a bad thing when I told my 5-year-old son, after his kitten was hit by a car, that he could pick out a new kitten. All I knew was that he was hurting, and I wanted to make that hurt go away.
The book When Children Grieve, (which I highly recommend), states:
Relationships with people, with animals, and even with prized possessions are unique. The uniqueness of a relationship is irreplaceable. So the notion of replacing the loss is a very dangerous idea, because it translates into replace the relationship, which is not possible.
Children need to feel bad when their hearts are broken. Don’t try to fix them with a replacement.
Yes, feeling bad is a natural reaction to heartbreak. So, instead of saying ‘Don’t feel bad,’ or trying to replace the loss, talk with your child about their sadness. It’s a necessary part of the healing processs.
2) The Cure for Grief – by Norah Casey
Norah Casey lost her husband too early. She tells the story of how she was stuck in grief, trying to navigate the so-called ‘5 Stages of Grief’ so that she could heal. But she realized the cure was twofold:
- She needed forward motion. A plan. A new future.
- Part of healing required the sharing of stories, and collectively learning how to heal together.
Our children need to know what the death means to them. How does their world change? How does it stay the same? What will their future be like?
And they need to be able to talk to someone about the loss. About the memories. And the best person for that job is a loving parent.
My son and I made a memory book of his dad. It was something that helped us remember the good times, and mourn the past.
3) Everything around them is still there, dealing with sudden loss – by Marieke Poelmann
Marieke Poelmann explains how her parents were killed in a plane crash, and how her life changed after that tragic experience.
What I learned from her story:
You are so much stronger than you think. Even if it feels hopeless at first, somehow you will find a will to live.
Our children watch us, and see how we cope with loss. They imitate our examples. So don’t be afraid to let them see you cry. But then, let them see you make a plan. A plan to Survive. A plan to Heal.
4) Grief, It’s Complicated…10% of the Time – by Susan Delaney
Susan Delaney is a grief counselor, and although she specializes in complicated grief*, I picked up a few helpful concepts that we can choose to help our kids heal:
- Grief is messy. Let your child know that there will be good days, and there will be bad days.
- Show bereaved persons, young or old, support and love. Be there to listen, to talk, to help out in any way.
*Complicated Grief is when the bereaved person is frozen in grief. It’s persistent, and complex, and the sufferer feels unrelenting pangs of guilt over the death. If you or your child are dealing with complicated grief from a loss, please see a counselor or mental health professional.
5) The Art of Saying Goodbye – Isabel Stenzel Byrnes
Isabel Stenzel Byrnes has learned, time and time again, what grief feels like. She is a cystic fibrosis survivor who has lost over a hundred of her friends, and most recently, her beloved twin sister, to this illness.
Here are some things we can share with our children from her story:
Emotions come and go, but we can choose to not let them paralyze us.
Emotions are manageable: like waves in the ocean, they come and go.
There’s no right or wrong way to say goodbye. Grief is an art, not a science.
She teaches us that saying goodbye is much easier when we grieve together. So grieve in front of your child, with your child; not behind closed doors.
And sometimes, in grief, a burst of creativity is born. Whether it’s writing, artwork, or some other expression of their loss, it can help them find some power over the pain.
If we, as parents, lovingly listen and answer questions, our children will be comforted. They will learn from our example and our loving support how to cope with loss and heal.