What to say to grieving children
BY Susan Bramsch, The Tristesse Grief Center
Thursday, November 19, 2009
11/23/09 at 11:07 AM
As much as we would like to place our children in a protective cocoon when a loved one dies, that is simply not reality. Just like adults, children are going to feel the painful losses that are a part of life.
But there are ways we can help our children as they make their way through the journey of grief. With compassion and knowledge, we can help them heal by guiding and helping them develop inner strength that will serve them throughout their lives.
Be available and listen. Create an atmosphere of open acceptance that invites questions and fosters confidence and love. Sometimes it can be as simple as “being present” in their lives when they are ready to ask the questions. It is important to know that you may not be able to always answer every question, so turning to a grief or bereavement professional can help you and your child through this time.
There is no timeline for a child’s grief; it may be months or even years before a child displays signs of the full impact of a death. So when a child seeks you out to talk, put everything else aside and be available to really listen. Hear with your ears, your eyes and your heart. It is okay to cry, to be sad or to be angry. It is even okay that your conversation leads to a smile and laughter as you remember a favorite moment of the loved one.
Be patient and understanding. When a child is grieving, he or she may have shortened attention span and may have trouble concentrating. A change in a child’s school work may be one of the first symptoms of difficulty so it is important to maintain open communication with your child’s teacher.
A child may attempt to deny feelings of anger, hurt and fear by repressing them. Eventually, grief can take over and their feelings can come spilling out. This is when a child tends to express grief by misbehaving. They may act out their feelings and emotions. We cannot always know what they are feeling or thinking but if we are watching for behavior changes we will see clues to adjustment difficulties. It is important to note that all children react differently. Some signs of grief include anger, fear, withdrawal, panic, anxiety, aggressiveness, guilt, regression and symptoms of bodily distress.
Be open and honest with your own feelings. Grief varies in duration and intensity from individual to individual. From your own past experiences, a well-intentioned adult in your life might have discouraged you from sharing your grief. Maybe you were told to “be strong” or “it’s now time to move on”. This advice is contrary to the principles of healthy bereavement.
By being honest about how you feel by speaking openly to trusted friends and relatives about the feelings you are experiencing will help you be better prepared to help your child. Then you can encourage a child to express grief in all its forms. Acknowledge the reality that grief hurts and do not attempt to rescue the child from the hurt. Some days, you will need to be supportive and provide a quiet, private place whenever the child needs to be alone. Other days, you will need to sit with the child, speak softly, and allow the tears to flow. By allowing the child to experience his feelings and cope with them, you are respecting the child’s need to grieve. This will help them realize that grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss.
How to help a grieving parent
What not to say when your mother or father is grieving a loss. As sensitive and caring people, we sometimes just don’t know what to say to help a hurting parent. One of the worst things that consolers try to do is to resort to clichés that downplay or make light of one’s emotions. No matter how well-intended, such expressions trivialize the mourning, rather than appreciate the gravity of the grief.
Clichés to avoid:
“He or she is in a better place.”
“At least he or she lived a full life.”
“You are still young; you will find someone else.”
“Your grief will pass.”
“I know how you feel.”
“It’s time to move on.”
“You have your whole life ahead of you.”
What words can help. Offering support to a grieving parent can begin with a simple statement or open-ended questions. One of the most effective sources of comfort is saying nice things about the deceased. Stories about the deceased, especially ones of which the bereaved was not aware, are a great source of comfort, often bringing a smile to the face of your grieving parent.
Some conversation starters include:
“Tell me about _______.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“I’m thinking about you especially today because I remember that today is ______’s birthday.”
“What do you miss the most?”
“What is the hardest part of the day for you?”
“I care about you.”
“Whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here for you.”
What to do when your mother or father is grieving a loss. Don’t wait to be asked. Grief often depletes physical energy and minor tasks can loom large to the grieving parent. Don’t merely say, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” The grieving parent probably has lots of these types of offers and they may find it difficult to ask for help.
Examples of what to do:
-- Offer to complete a household chore or take grocery shopping by asking what time would be best.
-- Find a new hobby or interest that you can do together.
-- Make time to just sit and listen. Don’t think you have to have all the answers.
-- Don’t break plans for an outing. Grieving parents are very susceptible to disappointments.
-- Openly communicate and be flexible to changing holiday traditions.
-- Allow both tears and laughter. Validate that remembering their loved one can bring both.
This information was provided by Susan Bramsch, executive director of the Tristesse Grief Center, 1709 S. Baltimore Ave., Tulsa, OK 74119. For more information, call (918) 587-1200 or visit www.thegriefcenter.org.
There is no timeline for a child’s grief; it may be months or even years before a child displays signs of the full impact of a death.