Supporting a Grieving Child
It can be very difficult to support a grieving child, as we want to protect children from painful or sad feelings. There is no easy way of taking away the pain of death, we must instead acknowledge the pain and the sadness. Pain is the price we pay for having loved someone.
When a compassionate adult takes the time to listen and to help a grieving child, it can make all the difference. If a child has someone in their life who can recognise their pain (even when they are very skilled at disguising it) and offer comfort, they will have a greater chance of processing the emotional impact of the loss and importantly they will know they are loved and cared for.
Ways parents and carers can offer support:
Acknowledge their feelings. But don’t try to change them.
Sadness is a normal, healthy and important emotion, and pulling a child away from it before they’ve had the time to adjust to their new reality or work through what it means for them is not helpful. Grief and sadness are the way we adjust to loss. If feelings are ignored, played down or not allowed, it can actually make a child’s grieving process more challenging.
Anticipate behavioural changes.
Things won’t make sense for a while, and it is completely normal for a child to avoid the things they used to love. When there is a loss, many of the things that were important and fun will take on a different meaning because those things will feel different, as though something is missing, and most likely, something will be. Encourage them, but don’t hurry them or force them to return to activities or routines they may have previously loved. It is important to acknowledge how they feel at that moment and to reassure them that feelings change and shift over time.
Grief will come with so many intense feelings and it will likely change their behaviour for a while, sometimes drastically. They might have trouble sleeping, become angry, not want to talk, or struggle in school. See these for what they are – part of an adjustment this young person never imagined having to make.
Wonder about silence.
Children might not have the words or the self-awareness to articulate what they are feeling. Be careful not to interpret their silence as a sign that everything is fine. Check in with children from time to time. Sometimes their silence will be okay and the best thing will be to give them the space they need to make sense of what they’re feeling. Sometimes though, their silence might be a sign that they need help to put words to what they’re feeling, to make sense of what has happened, or that they are waiting for someone to hold them steady when their world feels like it’s falling apart.
Let them talk
Let them talk about the loss, the relationship they had, whether it’s a loved one, a pet, a friendship, or a parental separation, talking is key. It might feel as though you’re doing the right thing by not bringing up the death and your own feelings, but children need to know that what they’re feeling is okay, and they need the information that will safely fill the gaps for them. Let nothing be off limits for them if they want to talk.
Let them see you feel, but don’t lean on them for support.
Let them see that you also have feelings and that you can manage those feelings. This will help to normalise their experience and make it safe to talk about what they’re going through. In order to be calm, loving and empathetic, you need to take care of yourself. This means recognising how the grief may be impacting you and seeking the support and time you need.
All feelings have an important reason for being there. It’s never the feeling that causes the problem, but what we do with it. Pushing it away, pretending it doesn’t exist may cause more pain. Being able to identify, accept and understand feelings is at the heart of processing their grief.
Give them time and reassure them that their feelings are normal, that however they feel is completely okay and above all else, that they are loved.
For more information or support please contact the Princess Alice Hospice Bereavement Service on 01372 461 842.