Tara Bone, contributing writer
When my oldest son was three, he begged to get a Betta fish. As parents, we felt this was doable — how hard could a fish be to care for? We brought the fish home and our son affectionately named him “Grape.” He loved Grape. He watched him endlessly, talked to him and even tried to pet him. But one day, Grape died. As I tried to explain death to a sad little boy, I saw reality through new eyes. These were the first of many tears he would shed, and I was responsible to help him learn to cope.
Since Grape died, our family — like yours — has had to cope with other loss. This year our family coped with the deaths of two beloved family members. Though one was expected and the other was unexpected, both turned our thoughts to how parents and adults can help children through the grieving process. Death is a part of life, but during times of loss, children experience emotions they have never faced. It’s a critical time for them to build healthy coping skills for their future. How can we help them?
Travis Christensen, a licensed clinical mental health counselor at Clear Direction Counseling in Logan, said it’s important to let children express their feelings without judgment, rejection or abandonment. He points out that children are also more aware of what’s going on than parents realize.
“When adults try to minimize, or protect and underestimate how much they know, they will hear whispers and fill in the blanks for themselves,” Travis said. “Be honest and straightforward, encourage questions and provide a safe atmosphere.”
There is no time-frame for children to feel emotions; they can last for weeks or months. Travis encourages parents to watch for warning signs of unresolved turmoil, such as anxiety, aggression, defiance, or pulling away from family or friends. “Look past the behavior and try to focus on the core of what’s really going on,” Travis said. “The key is having knowledge of what’s going on in the life of your child.”
Parents are not alone either. If the loss of a loved one seems too overwhelming, there are community resources available to turn to for help. Travis reminds that, “No one can throw you a life preserver unless you ask for help.” Parenting is hard and it can be especially difficult when hearts are breaking, so reach out for help. The hope is that out of sadness, parents and children will emerge stronger with a resolve to live lives that honor those they have lost.
- Teach children that death is a part of life — don’t avoid the topic. Use wilting flowers, changing seasons or the death of a pet as teaching moments.
- Use straightforward, age-appropriate language. Say, “Grandma died last night,” instead of “She went to sleep” or “She went away.”
- Make sure parental mental state is healthy to model behavior and provide stable support. If not, get help.
- Tell children immediately about the death in a familiar place where they feel safe.
- Provide lots of love and security; listen and answer questions.
- Let children see you grieve; crying is OK.
- Maintain a home routine.
- Talk about what to expect at the funeral. Let children attend if they choose, but don’t force them.
- Conduct activities to honor the deceased: Plant a tree, make a scrapbook, display pictures and share memories.
- Help children express emotions verbally and non-verbally through art and play.
- Recognize that each child shows grief differently and sometimes it doesn’t manifest for weeks.
- Watch adolescent behavior and monitor social media posts.
Sources: Candy Arrington, Focus on the Family; Travis Christensen, Clear Direction Counseling; Catherine McCall, Psychology Today
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, PhD
Child Mind Institute: childmind.org
Harvard Health Publications: health.harvard.edu
Kidolence Bereavement Boxes: kidolences.com
The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss
Someone I Love Died by Christine Harder Tangvald