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What Parents Can Do

Suggestions for supporting children coping with an immediate loss:

  • Children need to hear the truth – simply announce the truth of what has happened.
  • Listen, listen, listen – don’t feel you need to talk all the time
  • Each child is unique and each situation is different – pay attention to the child’s signals of how much information they need and can understand and handle.
  • Children need prompt and accurate information and need to be allowed to ask questions.
  • Let them see your feelings of sadness but also your strength
  • You don’t have to have all the answers
  • Let them know you’ll get through this together
  • Let them know you will be there and take care of them and are ABLE to take care of them. They need to know they are not alone
  • Children are in as much pain as we are but often do not have the vocabulary to express their feelings. Help them put words on their feelings. (“You sound mad.” “You seem sad.” “You feel overwhelmed.” “You’re scared. ) Tell them how you are feeling.
  • Children grieve just as adults do however they frequently act out their grief rather than express it verbally.
  • Keep it simple…. Listen, hugs, tears, truth
  • Get the kids to talk – what are they feeling, thinking, needing. Again, you don’t need to do all the talking
  • If a child chooses NOT to talk we must respect that – don’t force it but let them know you are available.
  • Let children play – play is an important vehicle to allow children to work through their concerns and emotions.
  • Listen emphatically – you cannot fix it, make it better, or take their pain away. Validate their pain and their feelings. Feelings are not good or bad or right or wrong. They just ARE. I.e. Don’t say “you shouldn’t feel scared/sad/angry.” Say, “so, you’re scared.” Keep reflecting back what they feel. (Read “How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk,” by Adele Faber)
  • Anger is okay – being destructive or harmful to oneself or other is not. Be constructive with anger… scream, yell, pound a pillow, ride your bike until you are exhausted
  • Be present physically – spend time with your child. It’s okay for20them to see you cry but try to also let them see your strength and ability to cope.
  • Be as tactile as possible – cuddling, hugging, touching an arm or shoulder… even for grown “children.”
  • Acknowledge the tragedy. Explain and share the facts as best you can – without the knowledge of the real facts, children create their own “facts” sometimes even more terrifying than the real event.
  • Children grieve differently and children of different ages grieve differently.
  • The length of time spent in each “stage” of grief will vary and each child’s coping mechanisms will vary. Possible stages include denial, shock, anger, and profound sadness.
  • Kids grieve in SPURTS. Their attention span is shorter… they can go from crying to playing to tantrums to being quiet again all within a short period of time.
  • Kids need routine. Keep your daily routine and provide structure to their days.
  • Pay attention to your own levels of stress and shock and get support for yourself so you can be better able help your children
Each situation is different. Grief takes a lifetime …. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing forever…. It does get better and life will go on. Children will learn compassion and empathy and grow and learn from the pain. However, there is no quick fix. There is no way around grief or to avoid grief. You have to go through it. Denying, or burying feelings is harmful in the long term.
Dr. Sandra Fox outlines Four Tasks children must work through as they mourn:
  • Understanding what caused the loss – what happened and why.
  • Grieving or experiencing the painful feelings associated with the loss
  • Commemorating the value of the loss
  • Going on with life by accepting and integrating the loss psychologically and emotionally within themselves.
Bill Worden has defined mourning as the entire “process of separating from the person who has died or left and adapting to the loss.” We must assist kids in their process for two reasons:
  1. They are not mature enough psychologically to acquire adequate coping skills on their own and;
  2. They look to us, their caregivers, for help during each developmental stage of childhood (age 3 to young adulthood):
    • Preschool
    • Latency
    • Preadolescence
    • Adolescence
To ensure that children develop and master emotional skills as they process an initial loss and then face perhaps more profound ones in the future, caregivers have three major functions:
  1. To foster honest and open relationships with children
  2. To provide a safe and secure space in which children can mourn (express their feelings)
  3. To be role models of healthy mourning
 

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