Children grief parents and find comfort in memorial jewerly

How to support children grieving the loss of a parent

Being the son or daughter of a parent that died is a traumatic experience. I can relate to the grief experienced by these children because my mother died when I was 19 years old. It happened before I got married. Before I had children. Truly, she died before my life even began. We had just started to get to know each other as adults and we were past my tumultuous early teenage years. Our bond was strengthening, and I was positive it would continue to grow as we aged together. As it turned out, fate had other plans for my life.

 

Grieving the loss of a parent can manifest in children in a variety of ways. It’s important to also keep in mind that death is not the only culprit that can take a parent away from a child. If a child was abandoned by one of their parents, they will go through a similar grieving process as they cope with their loss. 

How children react to the loss of a parent

While they may not understand it, most children are aware of death. Losing a pet. Seeing the themes in cartoons and television. Knowing a friend who experienced a loss. There are many ways that a child can already have an idea around the concept of death even before they lose a loved one personally.

 

To help a child deal with parental loss, you first need to understand what are considered normal behaviors for a child who is grieving. Keep reading to learn more about bereavement in children and how to help a child grieving the loss of a parent.

Clearing up the misconceptions about children and grief

Social service professionals assert that there is a common notion that children are too young to grieve the loss of a parent. This misconception could not be any further from the truth. According to Mila Ruiz Tecala, LICSW, of the Center for Loss And Grief in Washington, DC: "That attitude is a disservice to children since it deprives them of the ability to grieve." She explains that research shows a child’s core personality is affected by any parental loss, even within the first few months. Further, she explains that losing a parent who was also the primary caretaker, "leads inevitably to changes in the daily routine that creates uncertainty and instability in the child's life." 

 

Losing a parent is a very confusing and extremely difficult situation for kids to go through. If you are the parent or guardian of the child, it may be difficult to accept that you cannot protect them from the pain that comes with a loss. Therefore, your primary goal for the child is to make them feel safe. Create an atmosphere and encourage dialog that helps the child express their feelings. Working through these difficult emotions builds strong coping skills that will serve them well in the future.

How children grieve the loss of a parent

Playing one moment. Crying the next. Entering a fit of rage. Playing again. Children going through a period of grief will often exhibit changing moods. It’s important to realize that because a child might be laughing or playing, that doesn’t mean that they are no longer sad or finished grieving. 

 

Children cope with difficult situations in life in a much different manner than adults. Oftentimes, play is used as a defense mechanism that helps prevent the child from feeling an overwhelming sense of despair. Even if they are playing, they could still be feeling anxious, guilty, depressed, or even angry. This anger might be directed towards the person who died or someone else entirely. 

 

Very young children often showed a regression of skills. For example, the child may start wetting the bed even though they normally do not, or other “baby-like” behaviors may emerge, such as baby talk.

Channeling child grief through outlets

Death can be very confusing for a child, especially if they are still quite young. It’s hard for children to process the emotions they experience after the loss of a parent. Reading to the child books tailored to their development age that talk about death is a good way to get them to open up and share their feelings. Even if it does not open them up to discussion, reading children’s books about death will still help them better understand what they are going through. 

 

Not all children will want to or even be able to verbally voice their intense emotions out loud. Other creative outlets can be used to help channel and process those emotions, such as drawing, creating a scrapbook, telling stories, or looking through photo albums.

Be sensitive to the development needs of the child

You can never really tell how a child is going to react to death until they are faced with the situation. Sometimes they cannot even grasp the concept that death is a permanent state. In fact, sometimes very young children think that their parent could come back if they practice good behaviors, such as eating all their vegetables, etc.

 

Be careful to not overload them with excessive information that may feel overwhelming. Support them. Be there for them. Answer their questions. Above all, use your best judgment to gauge how to proceed with the child. 

Avoid the use of euphemisms

You must be direct in your communication with a child following a parental loss. Kids take things literally, and if you make a statement such as “they went to sleep forever” this can be quite frightening for a child. It can make them fearful of bedtime and interrupts their opportunity to develop important coping skills.

Attending the funeral

When a parent dies, the child’s guardian is faced with a very personal decision about whether the child should attend the funeral. For some families, it’s beneficial for the child to attend, and other situations, not so much. Funerals are great for providing closure. However, many children are not ready for the intense experience. If you decide to bring the child to the funeral, explain to them about what they will see in the casket and that people will be crying so that they are not caught off-guard by the scene.

Talking about an afterlife

A grieving child may feel hopeful at the thought of an afterlife. If you have religious beliefs regarding the afterlife, this is the time to share those with the child. Even if you do not have religious beliefs, you can still comfort the child with concepts such as the loved one will always be with them and carry on in the hearts and minds of the people who loved them. There are also memorials you can create that represent the parent who died, or even make use of the loved one’s remains. For example, you can order tree planters that include a sample of your loved one’s ashes or you can send in a sample of cremains or hair and have it turned into a diamond.

Express your grief in front of your child

Don’t ignore your own grief. Sometimes it can be so easy to worry about your children that you overlook the fact that you need to cope and come to terms with death as well. Showing your emotions in front of your child helps provide reassurance that being upset or sad is okay. Do not react explosively or uncontrollably, because this will teach the child negative coping skills for handling grief.

Maintain the child’s daily routine

Keeping regular day-to-day activities in place is a great way to help the child cope with grief and get back to a normal life. Grieving is important and your child needs to understand that, but at the same time, life must go on.

Grief counseling and parent loss support groups

Older children who are able to express their emotions can benefit from grief counseling. You can conduct an internet search in your local area, and find grief counseling for children, many of which are free. Group grief counseling can be an option where the child can meet other kids who have lost parents as well, or the child can go to one-on-one grief counseling sessions.

 

Death is hard. For most people in life, losing a parent is the single hardest thing they will ever go through. The type of love and support a child receives during this delicate time can have a tremendous impact on their growth and development as a person. Use these guidelines to help you formulate an approach that works best with your child.