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How Children Grieve, Part 4: How to Help a Grieving Child

Most of us are not really taught how to help people who are suffering or grieving. Generally speaking, we want to help, or many of us do, but we don't know how. We feel awkward or helpless, nothing we can do would possibly be enough to make things better. Or, we try to take the pain away and tell people how they should feel or act. 


This is especially true when dealing with kids. As adults, we feel as if we should be able to speak a magic word or do something that makes our kids feel better. Their sadness may be too much for us to bear, or maybe there just isn't time or people available to help. Whatever the reason, our kids need support and guidance through their grief. They learn how to mourn and to move on by watching the grownups. Let's try to do this in a healthy manner.



Here are some practical ways you can help your child deal with loss and grief, and all the emotions that come with it.  


Create honest and open relationships: 

  • Let your child feel comfortable talking about their loss. They may come up with strange ideas or stories, but that's ok. It's normal. They just need to feel supported and cared for. 

  • Make time for your child and process your feelings with them. 

  • Encourage questions and remember that children have a deep fascination with death. 

  • Talk in an honest, yet age-appropriate manner. There are many books you can read with your child (see list at the end).


Provide safe spaces for children to mourn: 

  • let your child know it's okay to feel all the feelings, from anger to sadness to confusion and more. 

  • Let them ask questions, make art, and tell stories to help them understand this from their point of view. Don't judge or correct, unless it's age-appropriate to do so (gently correcting a 5th grader's understanding of the human body, for instance, is different than explaining to your 4-year-old that heaven is a construct). 

  • Provide extra comfort, like a cuddly stuffed animal, a soft blanket, soothing room scents, soft lighting, indoor tents, or whatever they need to feel safe and secure. 


Model healthy mourning

  • Don't hide your mourning. It's ok to show grief with your children. It's powerful for children to see and hear how their parents are feeling. Try this therapeutic statement structure: I feel (your emotion) because (describe the situation), and I need (explain what you want or need.) 

    • "I feel sad because my mom died, and I wish she were still here."

    • "I feel scared that the dog ran away, and I hope he comes home soon". 

    • "I am upset that my best friend moved away, and I need time to myself once a week so I can Facetime her."



What to say to a grieving person:

It is so hard to know the right thing to say when someone is suffering. The fact is, there is no good thing to say--their life is terrible and scary, and you can't fix that. You can't take away the pain, but you can show kindness and empathy (by understanding their feelings, not their situation).


  • I’m sorry.

  • This isn't fair. 

  • You must feel (Pick an emotion: sad, angry, scared, stressed. Even if you're wrong, they will feel validated).

  • This must be a hard time for you.

  • I’m ready to listen if you feel like talking.

  • It can be hard to understand why these things happen.

  • What would make you feel more comfortable?

  • Expressing your feelings can help you through this (offer coloring options, access to music, access to play and games, access to books, or safe access to animals).


What not to say:

Unfortunately, our society has created some "go-to" platitudes and condolences that can be extremely hurtful. These try to control the situation and stop "uncomfortable" feelings. 


  • They're in a better place. (No, a better place is with me.)

  • You will get over it. ( No, I won't.)

  • You should be over this by now. (No, I shouldn't.)

  • I know just how you feel. ( No, you don't.)

  • You should/shouldn’t feel like… (Why are my feelings wrong? How is my experience wrong?)

  • Count your blessings. (My blessings include what I lost.)

  • Things could be worse. (Why are you minimizing my pain?)

  • You’ll be stronger for this. (I don't want to be strong, I want my life back.)

  • Be strong for your mother, siblings, etc… (Why am I not allowed to feel my feelings, and why are other people's feelings more important than mine?). 

  • God has a reason for everything, even this. (How do you know?)



Resources:

There are so many great books and movies to help you and your child deal with grief, here are just a few ideas to get you started.



Journals or adult coloring books might better help a grieving pre-teen or teen:



Movies:

Common Sense Media has a list of movies to help kids deal with grief.


Helping your children navigate through grief is challenging. No one likes to see their kid suffering. Each person is unique, and although we experience loss in our own personal way, there are loving, supportive connections to help us feel less alone and helpless. I hope this series has helped you and your child deal with a tough life transition in a healthy manner.

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