As a psychologist, I am often asked how to help little ones understand and deal with loss. How do you help your child, adolescent, teen, and even yourself deal with the loss of a loved one? From a family pet to a family member, death is one of the most difficult things for a parent to help a child through because they are often trying to get through it themselves. This isn’t a fun topic but it is one worth discussing. I hope these words help a little during the difficult days.
“I answer the heroic question, “Death, where is thy sting?” with “It is here in my heart and mind and memories” – Maya Angelou
When a loss occurs we go through the stages of grief. We will be angry and then move onto rationalizing and even self bargaining in an effort to minimize the pain. We then move into acceptance and on into full grief. Sometimes we get stuck on one of these steps and cannot move past the pain until we allow ourselves to fully grieve. We think that if we break down and cry then we are not being strong, but in truth giving into your emotions and allowing yourself to feel the pain of a loss begins the cathartic step of acceptance. It will continue to hurt but it will hurt from a standpoint of loss, not internal conflict. These are difficult emotional waypoints for an adult. What about a child?
“Always remember, the pain now is part of the joy then.” – C.S. Lewis
Often times a parent will try to shelter or minimize the pain of a loss for their child by diverting attention away from the person lost and keeping the loss on the periphery of the child’s consciousness. We do this by changing the subject or giving answers that semi-allude to the absence of the person without truly disclosing the finality of the absence. It is important to understand that mixed messages can be difficult for little ones as well as the parent. It truly is difficult to think about taking your 6-year-old and telling them that a loved one won’t be coming over any more. It isn’t much easier to think about sitting across the table from your 16-year-old and telling them that a person they love won’t be there again. But it is a message that needs to be told because little ones and children and teens need the opportunity to move through the conflict of loss and move to the cathartic spiritual acceptance that comes with truly grieving.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. – C.S. Lewis
I am guessing some of you are thinking that it would be cruel to tell a child about the death of a loved one and if done in a cruel fashion, it would be. However, loss is a part of life and it is a fact of life that must be felt and thought about and discussed in order to begin to understand it and deal with it. Little ones need the opportunity to miss their loved one and express their loss and even grieve in order to begin to move on. When that opportunity is taken from them out of fear of causing more pain what happens is the progression to true grieving is impeded and becomes more complicated because of the internal struggles of not understanding what is happening and feeling they cannot ask questions because their questions are met with cryptic or veiled answers. Little ones can be remarkably perceptive when direct questions are met with obfuscation.
This is why it is important to sit down with your little ones and explain loss in terms of life.
Affirm for your children that losing someone they love is going to hurt and they should hurt.
Affirm for them that it is ok to cry and let them know that you have shed tears yourself.
Let them know that it is OK to miss the loved one and that you miss them. Then help them foment their memories of the loved one by talking about them. Don’t try to hide from the memories of a loved one, because that will create internal barriers for children that will make coping even more difficult. Instead, share funny stories and stories of heroics and love and happy memories.
Yes, it will make you cry. And no, it won’t be easy.
But you need those memories in order to validate your pain, and your child needs those memories in order to understand why they are hurting but more importantly that it is OK to hold onto those memories. They need to know that their memories are worth cherishing. This will make the short term loss a little more intense but it will make the long-term loss one that is bound to the memories of happiness and blessing.
“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone” – Harriet Beecher Stowe
Older children and teens often have even more difficulty dealing with loss because they have the perspective of presence. They understand the permanence of loss and they understand the unsaid words and the misplaced deeds. It is very important that parents sit down with their preteens and teens and talk about the loss and talk about their relationship with that person. They need to express their pain and understand that you are dealing with the pain as well. Your children can be a source of strength for you, because they will want to protect you as you grieve just as you are protecting them. Together, that protection can help both of you move from the rationalizing and bargaining and anger to the acceptance of loss and finally into true grieving.
The loss of a loved one is one of life’s cruelest lessons but when the lesson is learned within the context of a family then the cruelty of the lesson is turned into the beauty of unbreakable memories. Crying with your children and letting them see the emotional vulnerability of loss does not make you weak. Instead it shows your children that loss hurts and it is OK to hurt. It shows them that grieving is necessary and that it should be done together. It will show them your strength in the understanding of the need to grieve.
Help yourself by being strong enough to grieve.
Help your children by being strong enough to allow them to see you grieve.
Help your family by grieving together and turning the pain of grief into the bonding of memories. And then use this incredible life experience as an affirmation that though life is frail, every day is an opportunity. Remind them that the sun will come up tomorrow and they will have the opportunity to be everything they want to be. Loss is a part of life. Embrace the lesson and allow yourself to hurt. Embrace the lesson and lead your family into and through grief.
...And then embrace the lesson and remind them that life is still occurring and they need to make every minute count.
"Live today as if you were to die tomorrow." - Ghandi