Children and loss - when children grieve

Children and loss - when children grieve

What’s the best way of speaking to children about divorce? Or preparing them for moving house? Or explaining what death is? These are issues we’re often reluctant to consider ourselves, let alone discuss with children. They are associated with difficult situations that we adults don’t find easy to deal with ourselves. And the common denominator in all of them is loss.

Everyone finds it hard

Loss comes in various forms. Most often, we associate it with the literal loss of someone we care about – or the death of a beloved pet. However, children also experience loss when their parents divorce or when they move house, leaving behind not only the place(s) they felt most comfortable, but also their friends.

Loss, in any form, leaves us feeling unsettled and raises a whole range of questions. Moreso for children. The world as they knew it, in which they felt safe, suddenly changes and they have to learn to cope with that change.

We each grieve in our own way

In some cases, we know ahead of time when we are about to lose something or someone, and can prepare ourselves. At other times, loss comes suddenly and unexpectedly. In both situations we are often unsure about what to say to our children.

Before we offer any advice here, we want to remind you that loss can create a wide range of emotions and reactions. We might feel sad, distressed, sorry, powerless, frightened or empty. Anger can catch us off-guard, too, or we might find ourselves in denial about what has happened. In short, we react in all sorts of ways, and the length of time we each need to come to terms with the loss we have suffered varies widely. It is our own special grieving time, and grieving is hugely important. It helps us realise what we have lost, accept the loss and absorb into our lives. Some people feel they need time alone to cry, others prefer not to be left alone with their emotions and choose to talk to someone they trust.

Children may be tearful or fearful, and need extra physical contact; they might even test whether you still love them or worry about losing you too. It should not surprise us if they become angry or if their behaviour changes: a conscientious pupil suddenly gets detention, or your previously angelic child starts hurling things across the room. Some children express their sorrow or worry physically: they may get ill, have stomach aches, toothaches, headaches, or nausea. And, just like many adults, some will react in completely the opposite way: it might appear as if they aren’t at all affected by the loss, or as if they don’t care. Which is also a perfectly normal response.

What to do – and what not to do

Do not lie or conceal what has happened

Children might be young, but they don’t miss a thing. Indeed, they tend to be more observant than adults. So there is no point in trying to hide things from them or in lying to them. Talk openly with them and try to explain what is happening, in an age-appropriate way.

Be there for them

Be honest and natural with them. Don’t downplay the situation but don’t be over dramatic about it either. Acknowledge their emotions and don’t tell them how they should be feeling. Answer their questions and be prepared for the fact that younger children, in particular, might ask the same questions over and over again. Don’t take this badly – no one knows what comes after death, and children will appreciate your frankness.

Sometimes children will need to narrate their own version of what has happened, or play-act it with their toys. Don’t stop them from doing that, but listen and watch, and perhaps talk about it with them. Children tend to bring real-life events into their games, so don’t be surprised if they start playing ‘funeral’ instead of ‘house’. That’s their way of coming to terms with the situation.

Try not to dismiss their emotions. We all know the feeling we get when a child starts crying and all we want to do is to comfort them immediately. But in situations of loss, crying is genuinely curative. Instead of consoling your child, assure them that it is perfectly acceptable to cry — cuddle them and let them experience their heartfelt emotions in full. Remind yourself no emotion lasts forever and sooner or later your child will get through it.

Never force your child to mourn outright, and never reproach them for being cheerful. They might start to blame themself for not crying while everyone else is, and that could make the whole situation even more difficult.

Come up with a ritual to say goodbye (and remember)

When a loved-one or pet dies, offer your child a way of saying goodbye. Go to the funeral together, or come up with your own act of farewell. When we lose someone close to us, it’s also good to find a special way of remembering them. Frame a photo, visit the grave, or spend some time talking about the loss.

Stick to your usual daily routine

Daily routines make children feel safe, so it’s best not to change them, if possible. This tends to be more difficult to achieve in divorce situations. Do your best not to disrupt your child’s usual schedule, and prepare them for any necessary changes. Talk about these things together. Reassure your child that you are there for them and will still love them the same as before.

Work on yourself

This is good advice generally, but especially when it comes to loss, which is not easy for anyone. When we have children, it’s harder still – the way we handle loss ourselves has a huge influence on our children. Feel like crying? Have a good cry! By doing so, you'll be teaching your child a key lesson: it’s important to recognise all your emotions, accept them and process them. Feel free to admit to your child that the situation is very hard for you, that it’s all a bit too much. Describe how you’re feeling and show them that you’re both in the same boat and will weather the storm together. It’s often our children who prompt us to work on ourselves. We realise all sorts of things about ourselves thanks to them, albeit sometimes painful. While looking to explain things to our children, we often find explanations for ourselves.

Learn to see loss as part of life

Show your children (and yourself), that death is part of life. We are all born and we will all die one day. Pay attention to th things found in Nature that are cyclical. Go for a walk in the countryside and talk about the seasons, for instance.

Books, films, and tales about loss can also help. There are plenty of materials available, even for very young children. It’s also worth gently pointing out the way things change or die. You can do this as you go about your everyday activities – like explaining why a plant is wilting as winter approaches, or what that dead fly is doing on the windowsill of the garden shed…  Show your child that nothing lasts forever – and that although Grandma has died, her grandchildren all have freckles, just like she had; Granddad is no longer with us, but we still have the rocking horse he made for us. These may seem like small things, but children will take them in, and it will help them construct a more coherent picture.

Loss will never be pleasant, but we can make it a little easier for ourselves and for our children by talking about it. And, to finish on a bright note: every cloud really does have a silver lining. When you manage to get through a difficult situation together with your child(ren), your relationship will be a whole lot stronger!

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