Helping Your Children Grieve
The death of a family member is often a confusing, even frightening time for children. For some it is their first experience of the death of a loved one. A child's first exposure to death is often accompanied by a period of moodiness and instability while the child struggles to integrate the awareness that loved ones do in fact die. It is important for the parent/child relationship to serve as a sanctuary for the child, where he or she can explore and integrate this new awareness.
Suggestions for Parents
• Communicate with your child about death and grief, being as honest and straightforward as your child can understand. Take the time to answer your child’s questions, acknowledging what you don’t know. Also, remember that children tend to interpret things literally. For example, if you tell him that his grandmother is “sleeping forever” or is “taking a long trip”, he might assume that if he goes to sleep he too might sleep forever or that grandmother will return from her trip.
• Take your child’s developmental stage into account; you child will not grieve as an adult does. Children do not have the same capacity as adults to tolerate intense pain over a period of time; they will grieve in spurts, and may even postpone deep grieving until a later stage of development.
• Share with your child what to expect if she visits a dying family member. If your child doesn’t want to go, honor her decision. Explore other ways your child can communicate with that family member—for example, talking through her heart, guided imagery, drawing a picture or writing a letter.
• Give your child encouragement to grieve and prepare him for what he might experience while grieving—that he might feel sad or unhappy for awhile. Invite him to share his feelings and questions with you and help him to express his feelings in ways that are natural and safe for him, utilizing play and the imagination.
• Include your child in funerals and memorials; it is her right to be included. Attempts to protect your child from death and grief can have long lasting negative effects. However, don’t force a child to go to a funeral if they don’t want to. And honor her refusal to participate in any part of the ceremony—she may not, for example, want to look inside the casket or kiss the dead person.
• Attend to your own grieving. Your modeling of healthy grieving is more important than you realize. Show your child how you are taking care of yourself in your grief. Your child might want to help you create an altar for the sanctuary and, if she sees you using it regularly, might choose to use that herself from time to time.
Excerpted from The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss (Beyond Words)