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Helping Your Child Grieve (Part 1)

Early in my career as a counselor, “long ago and far away,” a mother came in to the first session and spoke about the recent death of her husband. While this was a difficult time for mom, who was dealing with her own grief, her biggest concern was for her elementary-age son. He had been very close to his father and missed his father a lot. Being a young parent and having no experience with grief, she was not sure what to do about her son’s difficulties in school or how to help her son with missing his father so much.

Our children are often a big concern when we experience a significant loss. We want the best for them and want to know what to do to help and what so-called “normal” grief looks like for children. Like adults, every child grieves differently. It depends on their age, cognitive development, their relationship to the person who died, the circumstances surrounding the death and so much more. While we will address some generalities about how children mourn during different in “part 2” of this blog post, I want to address now three very important truths about grieving that I emphasize to every parent: (1) be sure you take time to grieve well; (2) don’t try to hide all of your grief from your children; and (3) allow time to grieve with your children.

When our children were young, our daughter loved playing dress up and our son wanted to be outside pushing the lawnmower with me. As all parents do, we have pictures of our children putting on our clothes and helping to wash the car. This imitation game is often healthy and natural and helps children learn. In the same way, children learn how to handle emotions by watching parents. Children learn how to handle anger and frustration by watching how parents respond in these situations. If we are an aggressive driver, chances are our children will learn this behavior.

When we mourn an important loss, our children learn how to grieve as well. Do we try to hide our tears and sadness? Do we bury ourselves in work or other tasks and not properly morn our loss? Do we tell everyone we are doing okay? Mourning an important loss is hard and messy! It doesn’t always look proper; tears and sadness don’t just come at convenient times when we are alone; we can feel angry, sad, lost, uncertain about the future, abandoned, and more, all at once. Grief is confusing and chaotic!

Parents first need to be sure they are grieving in an open and honest way so that they can adapt to this new world without their loved one in the best way possible. In order to take care of your children, you need to ensure you are as healthy as possible, both physically and emotionally. Talk with friends, your pastor or a counselor about your grief; attend a grief group; write in a journal; make time to grieve; look at pictures; ask questions; pray or be angry with God. But also make sure you are eating good, regular meals, getting enough sleep and doing something active. These physical activities are important so that you have the physical and emotional stamina to mourn your loss.

Second, even though you may want to protect children from more hurt and sadness, hiding your grief is not the way to do this. Children are best served when they see that it is okay to be sad, to cry, to not understand and to ask questions. While you may not want your children to see you crying intensely, loudly and even being angry in your mourning, you cannot always control this. During these times, and as soon as you can, it is important to tell your children that you will be okay. Explain that you are very sad, lonely, upset or that you miss mommy, daddy or grandma a lot right now. Let them know that these emotions sometimes come when you don’t expect them, and even though you may not want to cry so hard, it can be difficult to stop. Let your children know that even during these emotional times you are okay and are still able to take care of him or her.

Finally, make time to grieve with your children. One of the benefits of funerals is that they are gatherings for family and friends to mourn a loss together. In cultures of the past both celebrations and times of mourning were extended periods of time. A wife might even be expected to wear mourning clothes for months following the death of a spouse to show that she was still grieving. Today we get past the funeral and within a few weeks most people expect you to be “back to normal,” naively thinking you should be over the grief. As most people who have experienced a significant death in the family know, this is just not the case!

Times to grieve with your children can let them know that you don’t expect them to get over their sadness right away, too. These can be times around significant dates (birthdays, holidays, Christmas or other special days) when you can anticipate your children might be thinking about your family member. They can be times in the first weeks after the funeral when you plan to look at pictures or go to special places where you remember your loved one together. Or they can be unplanned times when you see that your children are having a bad day or are thinking about the loss. No matter how they take place, these times can be important opportunities for communicating to your children that grief is normal, healthy and a time for supporting one another.

If you need support in your grief or need to talk about special circumstances related to the loss or your children, use the contact form on my website to send a question or schedule an appointment.

About the Author

Ray has been a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas since 1993. He is also a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a current member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Ray has been working with grieving families for more than 20 years as a counselor, educator and the leader of a crisis response team.