Five-year-old Tony lost his father to cancer three months ago. His mother tries to ease his pain, but her son still wears his father's shirts to bed, carries his picture in his back pocket and says he wants to go to heaven to be with him.
We all know that death is a natural part of the life cycle, but it's hard for even adults to cope with powerful feelings of grief. How much harder is it for children who suffer the loss of a loved one?
As parents, we want to shield our children from the harsh realities of life, but it is an impossible task. Losses come, tears fall and hearts break; and in many forms. Perhaps by death, but also by divorce, disability or separation.
Even though we can't keep grief from touching our children, there are some things we can do to make it easier for them to handle:
- Explain that loss happens to everyone at one time or another, that it is a normal reaction to change, and that they aren't alone.
- Remind them that grief is painful, and that you feel the pain too, but it does get easier to manage in time.
- Remind them of what your religious faith, if you have one, says about death and grief. Find soothing, spiritual Psalms to read aloud to them, or play music that ministers to the bruised soul.
- Tell them it's okay to feel sadness, anger, loneliness and fear, and encourage them to talk about it whenever they want to.
- Don't expect a child to show feelings the way adults do. Children, like adults, grieve in their own way. It isn't unusual for grieving children to show little emotion, or to want to play, or to act as if nothing is wrong.
- Remind the child that he or she can live a happy life again.
- Help the child say goodbye to the loved one, by making a scrapbook, or photo album, or by drawing pictures or writing stories about how they feel.
- Allow them to attend the funeral of a loved one if they express an interest, but don't force them to if they don't want to.
- Be aware of your own expressions of grief, and don't feel like you have to hide them from your children. Children are intuitive, and often reflect how we ourselves cope with grief.
- Know that grief has stages -- Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance -- but don't always manifest on a particular timetable.
- Help your child look ahead to a future without his loved one. Set goals. Plan activities. Be an example for him to follow.
- There is no timeframe for grief, but generally, if your child doesn't seem to be rebounding in six months or so following the loss, you may want to consider taking her to a grief counselor, or arrange for her to join a children's support group, or enter family counseling with her.
- Encourage your child to ask for, and accept, help if he needs it.
- Don't be timid about sharing the loss with your child's teacher and guidance counselor. They can be instrumental in helping your child through the process when you're not around.
- Help your child get plenty of rest, and watch for drastic changes in appetite or play.
- Let her know you are near, and listen when she talks.
It is a myth that children should be sheltered from grief. They suffer the loss too, and need to come to terms with what has happened. Honesty and openness are the best way to deal with child grief, in age-appropriate ways.
Children need to understand that it's okay to laugh and play again, and that the end of grief doesn't mean the end of love for the deceased.
Show them that love endures grief, and the best way to honor their lost loved one is by living a full, happy life.
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