Coping with loss
One in twenty children will experience the death of a parent, yet most adults feel very uncomfortable talking to the younger generation about death. However, if you want to help your child at a time of loss, it’s essential that you do just that.
Loss is common during childhood, with approximately nine out of ten children experiencing the death of a close family member or friend – but sadly, talking to grieving children is not so common. A study done in the United States found that less than one in 10 teachers had ever had any training in how to support a grieving student – and that this lack of training was the main reason they didn’t try to reach out to and support grieving children in their classes.
Grieving children readily pick up on adults’ discomfort – they notice that when they talk about the person that died, or their feelings of grief, that adults become tearful or try to change the topic. Young children may conclude that such questions or comments are “naughty”; older children come to view the conversation as inappropriate. In this way, grieving children are taught to remain silent.
Often adults conclude that if they don’t know what to say, it’s better to say nothing at all. They worry that bringing up the loss will unnecessarily upset children or that if they say the wrong thing, they will simply make matters worse. But saying nothing says a lot to children. It indicates that you are either unaware of their loss, uninterested or unwilling to help, or unable to be of assistance. This leaves young children often confused about what has happened and it leaves youngsters of all ages unsupported. This leaves them to grieve alone, adding to the isolation they’re already often feeling.
Starting the conversation
The following are some practical steps for starting the conversation with a grieving child (a lot of this applies to grieving adults as well):
- Express concern. Let children know you’ve heard about their loss and are available to listen and offer support.
- Be genuine. Children can tell when adults are not authentic. For example, don’t tell a child you will miss her uncle too, if you’ve never met him. Instead, you can say that you are sad to see that she has experienced the death of someone that she cares about.
- Invite the conversation. Use simple, direct, open-ended questions. For example, ask: “How are you and your family doing?”
- Listen and observe. It’s best to listen more and talk less. If you wish to share observations about children’s behaviour or responses, try to do it in a non-judgmental manner. For example, instead of saying: “I know you’re upset, but you shouldn’t push your friends away like that.” Instead, try saying: “It seems like you don’t want to be with others right now.”
- Limit personal sharing. You can draw on personal experiences to help you better understand grieving children, but you do not need to share this with them. Keep the focus on them.
- Offer practical advice. For example, discuss ways to respond to questions from peers or adults about the death to help grieving children feel less awkward returning to school or other social settings.
- Offer reassurance. Without minimising their concerns, let children know that over time they will be better able to cope with their distress, and that you will be there to help them.
- Maintain contact. At first, children may not accept your invitation to talk or offers of support. Their questions will evolve over time. Remain accessible, concerned and connected.
Helping children understand death
While it may be difficult for adults and children of all ages to accept the death of someone they care about deeply, very young children have the added challenge of first trying to understand what death means. There are four concepts about death that are important for children to understand.
1) Death is irreversible. Children often see cartoon characters “die” and then come back to life. Children who view death as a temporary separation have no reason to begin the painful process of mourning. They may be angry at the person for not contacting them or returning for important occasions. So understanding the permanence of the loss is a first step in the grieving process.
2) All life functions end completely at the time of death. Very young children initially view all things as living. Adults may confuse them further when they mention that they can’t watch television because the tv “died”. As they get older, children will come to understand that inanimate objects are not alive, but they may still be confused – eg a robot may seem alive, but a tree may not. They may not realise that people who die no longer have any thoughts or feelings – so they can’t be scared, in pain, or hungry. When adults suggest that children write a note or draw a picture to place in a loved one’s coffin, they may believe that the person who died will see their work. If that’s the case, then they may also may be aware that they are being buried or still be suffering in some other way. Understanding that all life functions end completely at the time of death helps children realise the person who died is not suffering.
3) Everything that is alive eventually dies.
Parents may reassure their children that they will always be there to take care of them. They may tell their children there is no need for them to worry about dying. But if children don’t believe death is inevitable, they may wonder why a particular death occurred. Often they conclude it is because of something bad they themselves did, or something they failed to do. This leads to guilt. They may also believe the death was caused by something the deceased person did or didn’t do. This can lead to shame. Understanding that everything that is alive eventually dies makes it less likely that children will associate death with guilt and shame.
4) There are physical reasons someone dies. When children don’t understand the real reason a person died, they are more likely to create explanations that again result in guilt or shame. Most children learn these concepts somewhere between the ages of five and seven years of age. The best approach is not to assume what children do or don’t understand based on their age. Instead ask them to explain what they understand about what has happened and correct any gaps in their knowledge or misunderstandings. Children who experience a loss – especially if it is explained to them appropriately – can learn these concepts at a much earlier age. Some children of two years of age or younger are able to demonstrate that they understand these concepts at some level. For example, even toddlers can come to understand that someone who has died is “all gone” – even though they will struggle, as adults do, to accept this reality.
WHAT TO SAY AND WHAT NOT TO SAY
Many well-intentioned comments are not helpful to grieving children or adults. The following are some common statements to avoid and suggestions for what you could say instead. Don’t worry if you have made similar comments to grieving children in the past – they are very forgiving as long as they feel people care about them and are trying to be helpful.
Avoid saying: “At least he’s no longer in pain.” Efforts to ‘focus on the good things’ are more likely to minimise the child’s or family’s experience. Avoid trying to ‘cheer up’ those who are grieving. Any statement that begins with ‘at least’ should probably be reconsidered.
Say instead: “What sorts of things have you been thinking about since your father died?”
Avoid saying: “I know just what you’re going through.” You cannot know this. Everyone’s experience of grief is unique.
Say instead: “Can you tell me more about what this has been like for you?”
Avoid saying:: “I lost both my parents when I was your age.” Statements that compare your losses with those of students or their families may leave children feeling their loss is not as profound or important. Maintain the focus on the grieving child’s
Say instead: “What kinds of memories do you have about your mum?”
Avoid saying: “You must be incredibly angry.” It’s not helpful to tell people how they should or shouldn’t be feeling. It’s better to ask. People who are grieving feel many different things at different times.
Say instead: “Most people have strong feelings when something like this happens to them. What has this been like for you?”
Avoid saying: “You’ll need to be strong now for your family. It’s important to get a grip on your feelings.” Telling grieving children that they shouldn’t express their emotions holds them back from grieving and learning to cope with their feelings.
Say instead: “How is your family doing? What concerns do you have about them?”
The Coalition to Support Grieving Students, led by the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (www.schoolcrisiscenter.org) and supported by the New York Life Foundation, was developed to create and share free resources on how to support grieving students, so that no child ever needs to grieve alone. The Coalition’s website (www.grieving students.org) houses over 20 video training modules covering a wide range of topics related to supporting grieving children and families.