Death and grief are a part of life and affect us all, regardless of age. It’s crucial to talk to children about grief and help them cope with emotions and feelings following a loss. Grief specialist Corinne Laan* advises parents on how to help children handle a difficult time in their lives.
We live in a society where, over the years, death has become a taboo subject. We are expected to get over grief as quickly as possible and return to our pre-grief lives. But grief is a slow process and cannot be rushed through or pushed away. Time and space are essential to our emotional well-being in the long-term, and that goes for children as well as adults.
Grief is not only the emotional response to a loss: it has physical implications as well, such as insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, loss of appetite and lack of motivation. A loss can be any type of loss such as loss of friendship, loss of a pet, moving away from a community or when parents’ divorce. Children often still grieve long after the loss. The intensity of the grief may change over time, but it does not completely disappear. It becomes part of who they are.
Even very young children experience grief, just like adults do. They go through all the stages of grief such as anger, numbness, low moods, and denial. For young children, these heavy emotions and feelings following a loss often show themselves as changes in behaviour.
If children are struggling to cope with the grief, they may suddenly become clingy; crying more often and bedwetting can also become an issue. Older children may regress in subjects they were otherwise performing well in at school. Children can become withdrawn and avoid any types of interactions with others. Even very young children can sense and feel when adults are sad or are facing a particularly challenging time.
Other signs children are struggling to cope with their grief are:
• Change in play which seems to focus on death.
• Feelings of guilt and self-blame.
• Difficulty concentrating at school.
• Difficulty sleeping.
• Expressing feelings of wanting to join the deceased.
• Needing constant reassurance.
1. Have open and honest conversations about grief, emotions and feelings. Opening up the conversation about grief helps children to understand what grief is. You can also share some information you feel they may need. When talking about such a difficult topic, using age-appropriate language is vital. For very young children, books about grief can be a useful tool. Talking about your emotions helps children to open up about their emotions and feelings. It makes it easier for you to understand how they are feeling, and you can in turn help them to make sense of their emotions. Feelings and emotions need to be accepted and acknowledged. Children need to know that what they are feeling is completely normal and part of the grieving process.
2. Be fully present and listen deeply without judgment when children are ready to talk about their loss and grief. They need to feel that their emotions and feelings are valid. Even if you are going through your very own grieving process, it’s crucial that you are available to help them cope with theirs. If you can’t help, seek help from a grief counsellor or a local bereavement support group.
3. After a loss, children need to feel safe. Reassurance, together with compassion and empathy, are often needed. If there is any change of plan, it is important to let children know what is happening and what to expect. It helps them understand this new world they find themselves in and feel safe that things are fine, and they will be okay. Be the safe comforting space children need when they feel overwhelmed. Your presence and hugs are often all that is needed.
4. Keeping activities and routine as normal as possible can be another way to help children feel safe. It provides stability during the chaotic times following a loss. Encouraging children to continue with their hobbies and fun activities is vital. These types of activities show children that joy and grief can co-exist. Being happy or experiencing a moment of joy does not mean that you are not sad anymore. It can reiterate how crucial these joyful moments are for healing and emotional wellbeing in the long-term.
5. Children need time and space to grieve. It gives them the freedom to explore their emotions and feelings and make sense of what they are experiencing. Grieving is a slow process which requires lots of compassion and empathy. Showing patience and understanding will help children to unpack the multitude of emotions they may be facing. You may need to answer the same questions repeatedly and this is part of the process of unravelling their grief.
6. Physical health is important when we are grieving. When we eat healthily, take regular exercise, and get enough sleep, our bodies tend to function better. Help children to make healthy choices when it comes to food. Involving them in meal preparation can teach them about healthy eating and it is a wonderful way to connect with them while cooking. Outdoor activities together like playing football, taking a long walk and going for a swim are not only good for physical health: they can also help dissolve heavy emotions. Introduce good sleep patterns, switching off mobile phones in the early evening or excluding video games or TV after 8pm as part of the bedtime routine. This will help children get enough rest and recover well from a tough day.
*Corinne Laan is a natural healer, grief specialist and author of The Art of Grieving: Gentle self-care practices to heal a broken heart (Rockpool Publishing).??
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– 05 October, 2022