My children experienced loss for the first time when my grandmother, Mammie, passed away a few years ago. My older child went through a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, and confusion. They came and went in no particular order, and emotions sometimes surfaced when least expected. My younger child had a lot of questions about death and wanted to know what Mammie was wearing in heaven and if she was able to eat all the candy she wanted.
Dealing with loss is difficult and uncomfortable, and it is especially challenging to assist children when we are processing our own emotions. This month we speak with parents and professionals about the importance of normalizing grief and how to best support a child who is experiencing a loss.
Use Direct Language & Clear Explanations
Says Dr. Hannah Jones, Regent University Professor
James Rogers and his family, residents of Wakefield, are no strangers to tragedy. When James’s son, Jamison, was a child, one of his baseball buddies was hit by a car and killed. “It was pretty tough breaking the news to him,” James said. “At that age, I wondered how much he understood.” James told his son that his friend was gone and would not be coming back. He also explained the situation that led to the child’s death, so Jamison would not be under the impression that God chooses people at random.
Like other parents who have been in this situation, James wondered if he had done and said the right things. Did he say too much? Not enough?
Dr. Hannah Jones, assistant professor of psychology at Regent University in Virginia Beach, says that even though parents often lean toward using euphemisms, it’s not the best approach when explaining death to children. For example, telling a child that a deceased loved one has simply gone to sleep can make a child upset and anxious about bedtime. “When children are having a hard time, direct language and clear explanations are best,” Dr. Jones said. “This can be hard for adults too, and it’s okay if parents need support during this time.”
When it comes to disclosing details surrounding the loss, that varies from child to child. If a child wants to know more, Dr. Jones says it’s perfectly acceptable to share that information. “If a grandparent dies from cancer, for example, and a child wants to know what happened, it makes sense to explain that the grandparent had been sick for a while and the body was no longer able to heal,” Dr. Jones said.
Allow Children To Express Themselves
If Depression Persists, Get Help
Within a few years, James and his family experienced several additional losses. Even though James was navigating his own feelings about these deaths, he provided support and opportunities for his children to express themselves. “Jamison would get mad and cry, and he would ask why his friend had died and wonder what he had done wrong. It was such a difficult time,” James said. “He hated people saying that the person who died was in a better place. I allowed him to be mad and sat with him through that anger.”
There is certainly a range of emotions that present throughout the grief process, and these can look very different for children. “They can feel worried and anxious and also experience anger and resentment,” Dr. Jones said. “They may wonder if they will get sick or ask why the person they love had to die.”
Depending on the nature of the loss, a child’s response to death can manifest in different ways, including displaying younger behaviors. “They may engage in aggressive play, have nightmares, or even experience bedwetting. These are still considered normal responses,” said Dr. Jones.
The severity and length of the response are factors to keep in mind, though. “If it has been several weeks or months, the behaviors are disruptive, or the child is functioning poorly, then it may be time to work with a professional,” Dr. Jones said.
James said that his family sought help for Jamison after some time passed and the loss seemed to be affecting his routine. “He shut down, and we were scared,” James said. “He was depressed and mad at the world, so we reached out to a counselor.”
Is It OK for Children To Attend Funerals?
Let the Child Decide, Says Dr. Hannah Jones
It can be very difficult for parents to make decisions in the midst of grief, including whether or not to have children present at a funeral service or memorial. Since children are unique and respond to loss differently, there isn’t one correct decision. “Unless, of course, the child says outright that he doesn’t want to go or is afraid to go,” Dr. Jones said. “In that instance, they shouldn’t be forced to attend a wake or funeral.”
Some children, however, find comfort and closure in attending services, and it can be helpful to see people remembering and grieving. It can remind them that they are not alone in their feelings. Again, Dr. Jones recommends using direct language and asking children if they want to be present for the service.
Lisa Brown is a licensed clinical social worker and mother of two in Prince George County. Her father recently passed away after a battle with dementia. Lisa’s twelve-year-old daughter, Nadia, had planned to participate in the family’s traditional Catholic service in the northeast. On the way to New York, Nadia tested positive for COVID, which meant she had to stay with her father while everyone else went to her grandfather’s service. “She was emotional and sad,” Lisa said. “She really wanted to be there.”
COVID-19 has complicated our healthcare system and the grief process for numerous families. When Lisa’s children last saw their grandfather in the hospital, he was having difficulty communicating and was sleeping a lot. In the early summer, Lisa’s father was moved to a rehab facility that was closed to visitors. Lisa talked with both of her children about her father’s declining health and answered questions for them along the way. She feels this was very helpful to their adjustment process.
Lisa has been dealing with grief in her personal life and in her private counseling practice. She believes that giving people the opportunity to talk after a loss is vital. “And for children, giving them the tools to talk about the loss is often the first step,” she said. “Sometimes kids need words to help them express their feelings. And if they can’t use the words yet, I have them express their feelings through pictures.”
Like Lisa Brown, James Rogers has dealt with loss and grief in both his personal and professional life. James serves as the assistant chief of Wakefield’s volunteer fire department and often finds himself on the scene of a tragedy. Because of his life experience, he feels more compassionate and compelled to help others. “I feel like a counselor at times myself,” James said. “I catch myself going over to the victim’s family and trying to find something helpful to tell them, even if it’s only assuring them that we did everything we could.”
Normalize Grief As Opposed to “Powering Through”
Remember To Show Grace & Compassion
Western culture, as a whole, tends to be avoidant of difficult emotions. “We focus on work and productivity and presenting ourselves as stable and steady,” Dr. Jones said. “This is ultimately unhelpful and unhealthy.” When we model “powering through” as the only acceptable means of dealing with grief, we can make children feel like their emotions are inappropriate. Instead, adults should try to normalize grief by acknowledging their own anger and sadness, which will allow children to see that they aren’t weird for feeling and expressing those emotions.
Dr. Jones also wants families to keep in mind that we remain in the midst of a health crisis, and we need to allow space and understanding for that reality. “I encourage adults to show themselves as much grace and compassion as possible during times of loss,” Dr. Jones said. The oxygen mask metaphor seems appropriate here as well. We have to take good care of ourselves first in order to support
If you or your child is experiencing a mental health emergency, please call 911.
Books can be great tools for children who are dealing with difficult emotions, including grief. Below are a few titles that Dr. Hannah Jones recommends.
• The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr - Reading age - 3-6 years
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