Grief is a dark and frightening place. It's hard to describe the depth of pain one feels as they travel on the grief journey. Now imagine you are a child trying to process the death of a parent or classmate. You don't have the tools/skills available through life experiences, and most of your peers have never experienced death. Am I doing it correctly? Is what I feel normal? Will it end? Who can I turn to for guidance?
There are things that you can do to help a child through the grief process, which is important to do, as children often don't understand their feelings, and may need your help, guidance, and support to cope. The most important thing you can do is to talk with your child, providing a safe environment for him to ask questions. Answer the questions as simply and honestly as you can. There is no need to elaborate or go beyond the questions asked. You know your child better than anyone. What works for one, as with adults, may not work with another. Trust your instincts.
Consider providing your child with art supplies such as modeling clay, finger-painting, or drawing paper and pencils. Art allows a child to express himself and relieve tension.
Children, like adults, grieve for different reasons and in different ways. Some grieve when they lose a pet; others grieve the breakup of a relationship, geographic move or worse...the death of a parent, sibling or friend.
It's sometimes difficult to read the signs and easy to pretend that children experiencing grief will just bounce back. That may be true. But they may not, and like adults, they may need a little help.
Below you will find some tips for assisting your child through the grieving process. Please know that with the support and help of caring adults, this difficult time can offer a chance for children to learn about life and living as well as death and dying.
Tips for Parents with Grieving Children
- Allow children to be the teachers about their grief experiences.
- Don't assume every child in a certain age group understands death the same way or has the same feelings.
- Don't lie or tell half truths to children
- Don't wait for one big tell-all to help your children understand death. Death is a party of life; teach throughout their growing up years as occasions come up.
- Encourage children to ask questions about death. Don't worry if you don't have all the answers. Expect the child to ask the same questions over and over again. Each time they ask and you answer, it will help them understand more and more.
- Don't assume children grieve in the same kind of orderly and predictable way. Allow them to be where they are. We all grieve in our own way and time.
- Don't misunderstand what may seem to be a lack of feelings when someone loved dies. Children don't process death as adults. They may hear the news then go out and play.
- Allow children to participate in the funeral. If you choose to have your child participate let them know ahead of time what they will see. Explain why we have funerals.
- Don't forget about the concept of magical thinking. Sometimes children believe that their thoughts can cause things to happen. They may have had times when they wished certain people would go away and leave them alone. Then, that person may die and they think they caused it to happen. They may blame themselves and are unable to say anything about how they feel. Talk to your children on their level about how the person died. Help them understand that being angry or upset with someone doesn't make him or her die.
- Realize that children's bodies react when they experience grief. Our bodies talk to us sometimes, especially when sad things happen. The child may note their heads and hearts don't feel good. They may feel tired; have tummy aches, sore throats or trouble sleeping. These will go away in time.
- Grief is complicated. Let them know their feelings are normal and they shouldn't be ashamed or hide them.
What You Can Do:
- Ask them what they know and understand and what they want to know.
- Stay calm when talking with your child or when answering questions.
- Practice what you will say about the loss or when asked specific questions.
- Answer questions - keep answers simple, clear, honest.
- Allow for children to express their feelings.
- Encourage your child to exercise some sense of control - allow him/her to make decisions about what he wants to eat, wear, do (within reason of course).
- Maintain routines - continue to provide structure and consistency.
- Provide opportunities to spend time together - this will allow your child more chances to share thoughts/feelings or ask question.
When to Look for Help:
- If a child is physically hurting themselves or others.
- If a child's reaction has gone on for 2-3 months with no change.
- If a child shows several of the behaviors listed below:
- Sleep troubles, fear of falling asleep
- Headaches, stomach aches
- Increased aggressive behavior
- A very high activity level (out of character)
- Constant worry about danger or additional losses
- Withdrawing from friends and activities
- Not showing feelings about anything
- Having trouble concentrating
- Worrying a lot about the safety of themselves or loved ones
RMH Grief and Loss Service is pleased to sponsor Kamp Kourage, a grief camp for children entering grades 1 through 5 who have experienced the death of a parent/caregiver or sibling within the last calendar year. The camp is scheduled for Saturday, July 23, 2011 from 9am-5pm at Horizons at Valley Pike in Harrisonburg. The camp is free. To register or for more information, call RMH Healthsource at 800.433.4580.
If you would like advice on how to assist your child through the grieving process or would like to schedule an appointment with our child therapist, please contact
RMH Behavioral Health at 540.564.5960.
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