Loss is a normal part of life, which means grieving is an emotional experience everyone will face. As a therapist, I’ve seen how grieving can be hard and confusing for kids to understand and process in an emotionally healthy way. To be honest, it can be really difficult for many adults, too!
Whether it is the loss of a loved one, divorcing parents, not making the team or cheerleading squad, a friend moving away, or a pet’s death, most kids will experience some sort of loss that results in feeling grief. Remember grief doesn’t happen only when someone dies; it can be any kind of loss that leaves a scar and impact on someone, even when you may think it isn’t too significant.
Here are key things to remember when helping a grieving child:
As an adult, you may be able to take a step back and see that the loss is not as significant for you. But remember to look at it from the child’s eyes. This may be their biggest loss in their life so far. Meet your child in that pain and don’t say things like, “It’s okay” when comforting them. In their mind, it is definitely not okay and saying it is can be confusing.
Instead, say things like, “I know this is so hard for you.” This validates the child’s feelings and helps them know it is okay to be upset.
Give them a healthy outlet to share in his/her own way.
Everyone handles grief differently. This is okay. If a child wants to talk about it, let him. If your child needs space, that’s okay, too. Don’t force your child to grieve in the way you think he should.
Ask for help.
If you are grieving, too, it is okay to admit you can’t support your child as well as you want to. You may need to ask your family, friends, church, or a professional to help your child process what has happened.
Help them keep a memory.
It is important to make sure your child can talk about his loss and memorialize it in some way. Some kids like to keep a picture, make a video of special memories, keep a memento, or make a memory book to remember. Get crafty and show your child that their loss is important by helping them keep the memory alive.
Kids will ask questions when they experience grief. Make sure you share honest age appropriate answers. Don’t give a child more information than they need to have. Remember that whatever you tell him will be the story he holds with that pain. Don’t make up a story like, “the dog ran away” when the dog dies. He may hope that the dog will come back. Don’t say confusing things like, “Grandma went to sleep” because the child may think that Grandma will wake up or even worse your child may fear he will die in his sleep. You never want your child to find out they were lied to later.
If your child is asking detailed questions that are not age appropriate, it is okay to say something like, “I know this is really hard and confusing. It is for me too as an adult. I understand why you have these questions; but, for now, I am going to sort through the answers and help you understand them over time as you get older.”
Model healthy grieving
Kids will often pick up on our emotional cues and follow our lead. Be sure that you are managing your grief in a balanced way. You don’t want your child to make it look like all is normal, like nothing ever happened, but you also don’t want your child to see you fall apart in a way they feel like they have to take care of you.
Your goal should be to teach your child that grieving is normal. Using kids books can be a great way to do this. Grieving is a hard emotional roller coaster for adults and kids. Here are some ways to show you care if you know someone who is grieving.
Is there anything you are afraid of when helping your grieving child?
Teri Claassen is a Jesus follower, wife to Dan, mommy to one boy and one girl, a foster mom to kids in need, and a therapist at Renewed Horizon Counseling in Tampa, FL.