One of the hardest things, in my opinion, is to help a child process a death. On one hand, you want to protect them from the details, but on the other, they need to be told something that can make sense to them. The grieving process is difficult for anyone, but especially hard for little ones who may not fully grasp the concept. I think it is our duty as adults to help children work through their loss in their way and their time, so here are some thoughts I have to assist in the process.
I had the honor of working with The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast (recently Suncoast Hospice) during my practicum in graduate school. While Hospice care is often focused mainly on the elderly with terminal illnesses, their broad range of programs venture into the children and families affected by the disease as well. I was able to work in the Child and Family Service Provider Program, wherein I went into schools and homes and addressed the specific needs of children affected by the sickness and/or loss of a family member.
I found it very interesting that children often do not follow the Kubler-Ross model of grief. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with that five step process, it is Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. (For the sake of time, I will not expound on that, but it is easy to find and research if you would like more information about it.) Back to kids – In my experience, they go through the same emotions and feelings, but it is not as linear as with adults. It seems as though kids are more confused by the grieving process, somewhat redirecting their path to healing.
Children will often have lots of questions about the death, loss, and after-effects. Unfortunately, they are not often given the opportunity to ask them, as they quickly realize that when they bring it up, it makes people around them sad or uncomfortable. Kids work very diligently at protecting the ones they love, so if they notice that it makes Mom cry when they talk about Grandma, they quit. This can make it very difficult for them to process and heal from the loss.
So, how do you help children deal with, understand and grieve appropriately, especially if you are dealing with your own grief? There are a few simple tips that I would like to share that can help you and your children heal from a death.
Art is a great way to communicate and deal with issues, without having to understand or discuss emotions. Children will typically enjoy drawing pictures as part of their healing process. They tend to draw pictures of the loved one, usually with themselves in the picture as well, doing something they have fond memories of with the one who passed. I would encourage you to offer a white dry-erase board or an Etch-a-sketch for this project, as well as regular paper. There are several strong metaphors involved with a child drawing a picture and then erasing it, and it can be very healing.
This tip can be implemented in several ways. Children love to listen to and tell stories. Any chance to talk about the loved one, favorite experiences with them, memories that they cherish, etc. will be helpful for you and them. Also, your child can create a story book that includes the one who passed as a character, to read whenever they would like. This can allow them to choose a different ending, find a solution to something that was unresolved in real life, include new people, places, things, and more. It can be factual, made up, embellished, fantasy, whatever. Remember – anything goes in THEIR story.
Children live in the here and now, and will often prefer to have a tangible way to remember their loved one. A picture of the loved one to keep in their room, a favorite item of the loved one for them to have, a purchased token to represent the loved one, and so on. Further, it is sometimes very helpful to have a small family celebration or service honoring the loved one, wherein you light candles, send up balloons, plant something in the yard, etc.
As final thoughts, I think it is important to recognize that this is a difficult time for everyone. If your child is not approaching you wanting to process the death, they still need the chance. Set aside a time that you will be able to handle the emotions it might evoke and offer them the opportunity to do some of the above. Also, do not forget the effect that the death of a pet can have on children. They will grieve in the same way for animals, too. Finally, if you notice your child’s behavior gets silly, mean, aggressive, emotional, moody, (basically any change from the norm), it is probably a manifestation of grief. Try to see past the behavior to the root.
One of the things I loved about helping kids grieve is their resilience and their openness. They would honestly talk without guards around their feelings, handle their emotions with sincerity, allow me to be a part of their grief, and then in a split second ask if we could play. We could take some cues from kids about making a time for joy in times of sadness.
I would encourage you to be real about your emotions, honest about the death (don’t make something up in order to protect them from the truth), and seek support from people who can help if you need it. Suncoast Hospice has free grief groups for kids and adults, and gives top-notch assistance during a tough time. Most of all, use this as a time to grow closer to your family as you share in the journey of life, and with time you will all heal.