Life and parenting are a huge rollercoaster ride with extreme ups and downs. One of the toughest things we may be called upon to do as a parent is help our children cope with serious loss or adversities that arise. It seems that no other loss is quite as significant and tough as weathering the storms that rage when someone we love passes away. However, there are a few things we can remember to help the healing process along.
Shortly after I was married, when I was 24 years old, I experienced the crushing weight of the death of my father. Nothing had prepared me for the wounds inflicted by my father’s passing. I had studied grief and loss in school, and had a spiritual peace about death generally speaking, but all of that understanding died with my father. Those first two to four weeks after his death brought feelings of hurt and sadness I had never known. The difference in my response from my father’s death compared to other minor losses I had experienced in my life was unparalleled. Simply put, I thought I knew grief before, but I had never lost anything or anyone that I loved so much.
The title of this article is “4 Ways to Help Your Child Deal with Death,” but a more appropriate title might be, “4 Ways to Help Your Child Heal After Death.” If we regard loss, especially the kind of permanent loss we experience when we suffer the death of a loved one, as we would regard a deep wound, we may learn some things about how to help our kids heal after they have experienced the death of someone they love. As with physical wounds, emotional wounds take time and care to heal. Consider the following things when tending to your own and your children’s emotional wounds:
1. Prepare. Emotional First Aid. Just like it is important to understand first aid, it is important to understand what generally happens in the “normal” stages of grief and loss, and to prepare yourself to aid your child when necessary. The normal stages of grief and loss are:
The initial stage is generally one of shock: “I can’t believe it!” or, “I won’t believe it!” The difficult part of giving emotional first aid is that oftentimes you are experiencing the same feelings as your child. This is why it is so important to have supportive people around you that you can talk to. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to friends or relatives, or feel they are also too emotionally invested to help, a grief counselor may be helpful for parents to heal themselves.
2. Bind up the wound. In first aid they teach you to keep the victim warm and as comfortable as possible when they are experiencing shock. This is good advice for our children that are experiencing emotional shock. Wrapping your children in a loving, supportive, and understanding environment will help them to adjust and start the healing process. Just because a child doesn’t cry or says he doesn’t care does not mean he is not hurting. Sometimes we don’t know what to do, but just gathering him up in a hug, crying together, and speaking words of understanding can be the ointment and bandage that is needed to protect against the infection of bitterness and begin the healing process.
3. Let it breathe. It’s important not to smother your child or tell her how she should feel or react. Give her space to express her feelings as she will. Young children often express themselves through play, while older children often express sadness through anger or defiance. This can also be a time when a counselor can be helpful, providing a “safe place” to express emotions that can often seem “socially inappropriate.” Different people work through the stages of grief in varying orders and speeds. Give it time. A year is not an unreasonable amount of time for a person to grieve.
4. There may be a scar. When your child is ready, it may be helpful to take a look back at what he has experienced and learned. It can be helpful to remember the person that has died, and to re-experience the great times he had with that person. A wonderful way to do this is to create a scrapbook of photos and stories about the person. The final stage of the grief cycle is acceptance, not absence of grief. There are often still scars; after all, the person is not physically with them anymore. The scars can act as reminders of life and love, and increase his wisdom and compassion.
Death is an inevitable piece of life. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, our age, or our station in life, grief and sadness accompany death. The good thing is that we have built-in support systems called families that can help us deal and heal. Parents can be strong facilitators of the healing process when their children are hurting.