By Lauren Littauer Briggs —
By the time I was eight, my first brother had died and my second was diagnosed with the same fatal condition. My great-grandmother had died, but I wasn’t allowed at the funeral. Instead, I peeked through the heating ducts to watch what was going on. My dog was given away with little explanation and my second brother was placed in a children’s home where he could receive the medical attention he needed. I never saw him again. My loss experience was more extreme than many and remained a dominant theme throughout my childhood.
The usual way children learn about loss and death begins at an early age in a benign sort of way. A toy gets broken and can’t be repaired. A favorite stuffed animal or blanket is taken away and put in a safe place. As time goes on, a pet may die, such as a bird, a fish or a hamster. The pet is lovingly wrapped in a cloth, placed in a box and may be buried in the back yard. The child begins to understand that death is final.
A friend from school moves away. Letters are written and cards are sent. As time goes on, new friendships are made. Old ones become fond memories. Later, a long time family dog or cat dies. Again, that death is handled with compassion and tenderness. The child feels sadness and misses their treasured pet.
A distant relative dies and once again loss is explained. At some point in a child’s life, a precious grandparent or aunt or uncle dies. This loss is experienced more intimately, the absence more noticeable. As each loss takes place a new lesson is learned, a new understanding of loss is gained and a new sensitivity is developed.
Other children have devastating loss thrust upon them at a very early age, which is out of the natural order of life. They may watch a classmate die of a lengthy illness, Mommy may be killed by a drunk driver, a sister might be murdered.
Whatever situation you find yourself in at this moment, it is vitally important that you are aware of what your children need from you and how to help them face the losses in their lives. We may overlook children’s emotional needs because we think they are too young to understand and that they don’t grieve. Most counselors believe that if a child is old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve.
As I recall my childhood, I realize now that I had feelings of loss over my brothers’ illness and resultant death when I was seven years old. My sister, who was four years younger and had a totally different personality than me, remembers little of the trauma surrounding my brothers’ problems. As parents, we need to realize that different children respond differently to loss and that children move in and out of the grieving process. A child can be sad and tearful one minute and tossing the football in the backyard or playing with her dolls the next. Children are more prone to compartmentalize their grief than adults.
Explain Death Clearly and Truthfully
Children need honest, open communication about death. Keep in mind, what may be comforting words to an adult may terrify a child. Don’t say, “Uncle Bob passed away.” Or “Grandmother just went to sleep.” A child doesn’t know what the term “passed away” means. The child needs to hear that Uncle Bob died. Using the words die, death and dead may seem harsh, but are much more helpful for children. Children are literal thinkers. If you use the words, “went to sleep” the child may think the person will eventually wake up, or the child may be fearful of falling asleep because they know the person who died never woke up.
Age Makes a Difference
While infants and toddlers will not understand what death is, they will sense the distress of the parents, the emotional atmosphere at home and a disruption in regular schedules. Try to keep the baby’s usual sleeping and eating schedule whenever possible. Your baby will need extra holding, and touching. It is important to stay close physically to provide security and stability.
The preschool child may have a beginning concept of death, however, they often think it is reversible or not permanent. They may ask when the dead person is coming back. The child might also feel they did something that caused the death. Reassure your child that their thoughts, feelings, wishes or actions did not cause the death. Children ask a lot of questions and are quite open about what has happened. This age child moves from sadness to play quite quickly and may even seem unphased by the loss.
Children in their early elementary years usually understand that death is final and will want more details about how the person died. The child may feel vulnerable and worry if other loved ones will die. The child needs reassurance that he will not be left alone, but there will always be people to love and care for him. This age child may want to hear stories about their loved one and to recount their loss experience often.
Pre-teens and Teens
Emotions and feelings become a major focus for pre-teens and teens when facing a loss. Children in this age group often feel anger and guilt, but don’t really understand why or where it is coming from. In an effort to avoid the sadness or not add more trouble to their parents they often hide their feelings. They may prefer and seek solitude, withdrawing from their friends and support systems. When the opportunity arises, encourage your child to talk about their feelings, thoughts and memories.
Helping Children with Their Grief
Prepare the children for what will come. The more open you can be about what is ahead, the less uncomfortable your children will be. Explain what the funeral will be like, what they will see and what feelings they may experience. I tell children and adults alike that we hurt so much because we love so much. I feel it is very important to honor the sadness and hurt as a tribute to how much we love. If we didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt. Each moment of sadness and every teardrop shed represents our love for that person. We must never be ashamed of that love.
- Encourage your child to ask questions and answer them clearly and accurately. Tell them, “Anytime you have a question or don’t understand what is happening, please ask me. I will tell you anything you want to know.” Children have a great need to talk about what has happened, but they will only do so when the environment and time is right and they are ready.
- Spend one on one time with each child. Sit on the floor or ground so that you are on their level. Play with them, or color with them. Then, when the timing is right, ask questions about their feelings, memories and understanding. Have you had any dreams about ______?? Do you feel sad some of the time?? Would you tell me what you’ve been feeling? Could we draw a picture of _______?? You will probably be amazed how easily the conversation flows when your child knows you are available and want to be a part of their feelings. Ask, “Do you know how Grandpa died?” A question like this encourages the child to gather information and enables you to clarify misconceptions the child might have.
- Don’t over spiritualize the death with comments like, “Grandma is in heaven now.” “Jesus came to take your sister to heaven.” “God is in control.” or “God just needed another angel in heaven.” Be careful about using references to God or Jesus when explaining death to a child. They may believe that death is God’s fault and develop a sense of anger toward God. I knew of a child who wanted to go to the hospital to see the hole in the wall where “Jesus came and took” her baby sister. Children cannot understand a literal heaven, especially when it reflects an earthly pain.
- Don’t put timetables on the emotional reactions. Grief work is individual and truly unending. We will never be “over it” or “our old selves again.” Expect life to be different following the death of a loved one. Once our life has been touched by tragedy, we will never be the same again. As the parent, your job is to provide support and encouragement, allowing the sadness and heartache to surface. Special occasions such as birthdays, holidays and anniversaries of a death bring back grief. This is a normal and predictable part of the grieving process. It will be helpful to include your children in planning something special to honor their loved one at those times.
- Share your own feelings of loss with your child. Let your child know that you are sad, you miss the loved one, you think about him or her often. It is okay for your child to see you cry. That lets them know that it is all right for them to cry as well. Just be cautious not to burden your child with your grief so that they shut down and don’t want to add to your discomfort by letting you know how they feel. Some adults are afraid that if the child sees them cry it may create further insecurities for the child. Many children will believe that a loss was not significant if they do not see their parents cry. Others feel they shouldn’t cry about the loss because they haven’t seen adults cry. Don’t be ashamed of your tears but try not to overwhelm them with displays of emotion.
- Don’t minimize your child’s feelings with comments like, “You’re a big girl, you can handle this.” ” You don’t need to feel that way.” Or “Boys need to be strong.” If the loss is that a pet has died, don’t try to take the hurt away by saying, “We can get another dog.” Don’t buy a replacement pet immediately. Allow time for the grieving to take place. When we minimize their feelings it sends a clear message that we don’t understand what they are going through. Instead validate their feelings by saying, “This is a very sad time for you.” “I know this is very difficult.” Or “I love you and will be here for you.” Comments like these let your child know that you are aware of their pain and it’s okay for them to feel that way.
- After a death, children need to be reassured of your love and your presence. They may feel abandoned or think the death was somehow his or her fault. Reassure children that the death isn’t their fault. Say “I love you,” often and provide as stable an environment as possible. About two months after 5 month old Stevie died, 3 year old Emily was inconsolable. When she was finally calmed down she said she was afraid “the men were going to come and take her away and she would have to go to heaven too.” She was also afraid that one or both of her parents would die. This is a normal fear for young children. I would tell my children, “It is Mommy’s plan to be with you for a very long time.”
- When it comes to feelings, don’t use the words should or shouldn’t. Such as, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “You should be doing better by now.” That indicates that there is a right or a wrong way to feel. Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They just are. The more open you are to their feelings, the more willing they will be to share them.
- Children feel that adults are at the funeral services for the other adults. Kids have a need to grieve too. When it is age appropriate, I encourage children to attend the funeral. My son had a friend in kindergarten who was killed in a tragic accident. Almost the entire class went to the funeral. They couldn’t fully grasp the magnitude of his death, but they knew it was very sad and they would not see Chris again. It was so touching to see, child after child, pass the coffin and leave a small toy “for Chris.” Children shouldn’t be isolated from their friends and childhood activities during the period of mourning.
- A friend of mine recounts, “My son had a marvelous English teacher who had recently lost her son. Knowing my son’s dad had died, she shared her experience with him. Although she didn’t say, “I know how you feel,” he clearly got the sense that she had some understanding of his situation. One day, she gave him a flyer for a Teen Age Grief (TAG) group on campus and he decided to go. He participated in every activity, made new friends, helped other kids in even more difficult circumstances than his, wrote essays, and put together collages. It was great for him. I don’t think children should be left to their own devices to come to terms with loss. Sometimes adults have to intervene, but I think it can be very important to provide avenues for kids to take advantage of on their own, with the right support.” Look into support groups for your children. Never suggest that the need for support of counseling is an indication of weakness or shame. It takes tremendous strength and courage to look for support.
- A question children often ask is, “Is ________ still in our family?” We want to assure them they are a part of our family and always will be. I love what Maria Shriver wrote about her grandmother in What’s Heaven? “Everything she ever taught me is alive in me. She taught me that it is really important to love my family, to treat others with respect, and to be able to laugh a lot. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself.” (What’s Heaven? by Maria Shriver, New York, Golden Books, 1999) Our loved one does live on in us if we remember what they taught us, and meant to us. Encourage your child to keep their loved one alive by remembering what she taught, how she lived, and letting it show in their life.
- A young mother shared with me, that after her five month old, Stevie died, her 3 year old daughter was obviously distressed, but not able to put into words what was on her mind. By observing her play, she could see Emily was using her dolls to act out her concerns. She was playing with her dolls and playing “hospital” when she said, “I’m very sad the doctors could not make my doll well. My doll is going away forever and I am very sad.” Her mom told her that most of the time doctors do make us well, and her doll was all better and wanted to play. By watching her closely, she could get a sense of when the time was right to initiate a conversation about Stevie with comments like, “I am really missing baby brother today, and I know you are too.” Or “It is OK to talk about Stevie and how much we miss him.
- Keep an open dialogue with your children about the loved one and the feelings connected to the loss. You don’t ever want your children to think that talking about the loved one will hurt you too much, that it is better left alone, or that time marches on.
- Never underestimate the impact a loss or crisis has had on a child. Their attitudes and concepts about death and tragedy are related not only to their age, but to their maturity and experience as well. The way we deal with children must be highly individualized. On the surface, they may seem to adjust to a crisis easily, but this may be a form of self-protection. I never let my parents know how much I was hurting because I didn’t want to add to their pain. The real task of completing their grieving process may await them until later in life. If losses pile up on one another, resolution of a new loss will be more difficult.
- Unresolved grief from childhood “lays in wait” for a time when we can deal with it. When my second brother, Larry, who had been in a children’s home since he was 2, died at 20-years-old, I experienced all the emotion that accompanies a loss. It was much greater than I expected. I soon realized that I was re-experiencing the loss and accompanying grief from my childhood and my first brother’s death.
- Parental mood swings can be frightening to children if they’re not discussed. It is appropriate for a child to see their parent’s sadness, but they need to know the reason for it. I remember one morning when Mom was in a terrible mood. Everything we did seemed to upset her. I was getting mad at her for being so upset with us when Dad asked to speak to me. “Mom is upset today because it is Larry’s fifth birthday.” He had been in a home since he was two. He had not been a part of our daily lives and the doctors did not expect him to live to be five. Once I knew what was troubling Mom, I knew not to blame myself. Help the child understand the behavior of adults around them. Explain why Aunt Sally is tearful, or Grandpa’s silent. A little explanation will go a long way.
- Expect some physical indication of their grief such as loss of appetite, difficulty falling asleep or reverting to younger behaviors. You can help the appetite by preparing their favorite foods and serving smaller portions and offering quality food more often. To help with sleeping, give back rubs or comforting cuddles, read calming stories or have gentle music playing in the background. Make the bedtime patterns longer, more relaxed and a reassurance of your love and presence.
- A friend of mine’s husband died when her son was 10. He was very distressed about going to Junior High School and having to tell new people that his dad had died because he was afraid he would cry. She encouraged him to go into the bathroom, run the water, look in the mirror, and say over and over, out loud, “My dad died when I was 10,” until the spoken words lost their trigger. Help your child work through those painful passages.
Lauren Littauer Briggs is the author of The Art of Helping: What to Say and Do When Someone is Hurting. Her passion for comforting those in crisis began with the deaths of her two younger brothers, the first coming when Lauren was just seven years old. Lauren holds a degree in psychology and is the daughter of nationally known speaker and author Florence Littauer. Lauren has been helping hurting hearts for over 20 years through peer support groups, medical seminars and The Compassionate Friends Organization. Lauren is available to speak at women’s luncheons, meetings, seminars and conferences.
For additional information please visit www.laurenbriggs.com. Lauren may be reached at email@example.com. If you would like to have Lauren speak to your church or organization, please call CLASServices @ 1-800-433-6633Tags: grief, hope