How to Help Children Deal with Loss
Specific guidelines for caring adults.
Posted July 7, 2011 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Children today are experiencing many kinds of losses. We read about them each time we pick up the newspaper and see them on TV daily: floods, tornadoes, parents in Iraq, child abuse in daycare centers, the list goes on. Gut-wrenching stories of catastrophic loss seem to multiply before our eyes.
But not all losses are tragic. Many are woven into the fabric of normal life cycle transitions, beginning with birth. In fact, we come into the world through a major loss — the rupture of our state of biological oneness with our mothers — and afterward, we need healing. We need our parents to provide lots of physical touching, feeding, and nurturing during early infancy and throughout the first year of life, so that we can develop a solid sense of attachment, of human value, and of love.
But as time goes on, we need our parents to provide another aspect of love: We need them to say "no" to our dependence, to assert their boundaries, and to encourage our individual development. It's their job to teach us to obey, and in their doing so, we again experience a sense of loss.
When our parents tell us "no," our experience of bliss with them dissolves, and we enter into a struggle with them instead, which is often tough on each side — just ask the parent of any 2-year-old!
During this struggle, we gain awareness of our limits as well as those of others. A 2-year old asserting "NO!" is learning that she also has a will of her own. Children need to be allowed to express natural emotions in age-appropriate ways and with respect, and they need us, in our responses, to show them unconditional love.
Only when they're permitted and encouraged to express natural anger for instance, can they move on and readily allow forgiveness to express itself. With loss comes struggle; with loss comes gain; with loss comes the possibility of personal growth.
When helping children deal with loss, whether it be as a result of normal transitions like adjusting to a move or a new baby in the family, or more serious losses, like a parent leaving for war, job loss, serious illness or death in the family — or even when losses are the result of catastrophic experiences, like sexual abuse, a flood, fire, or terrorism — what children need most from us is for us to teach them basic lessons of the heart.
In order to do this, we must examine our minds and hearts, reflecting on our own experiences of loss and our commitment to paying attention to the thoughts and feelings that get stirred up when we do. How were losses dealt within our own families growing up? How were they handled in our places of worship? What was helpful? What was not, or even hurtful? What losses in our lives are we aware of today, what needs healing, and what are we doing or not doing about it?
Our first responsibility is to have our own emotional houses in order. If we do, then we'll be attentive and creative in our responses to children. If we don't, we'll be vulnerable to either being numb to their pain, trying to block them from showing it to us, or over-identifying with them and losing a sense of appropriate boundaries.
We can't take away the pain of another, even that of a child, but our sense of helplessness need not restrain us from reaching out to her. Never underestimate the power of love.
There are basic commonalities in the mourning process regardless of the type or severity of the loss, and viewing emotional moments as opportunities for connection and teaching helps us to communicate our caring, while we listen to, validate, and empathize with a child's feelings. Words are power, so we should help her to label the emotions she experiences, and help her to problem solve when the situation calls for it.
Adults often have concerns about how to help a child deal with the profound loss of death. Here are some important guidelines to consider:
- A child should be told immediately when someone in the family has died in order to prevent her hearing it from someone else, and use a normal voice, not a hushed whisper. Whispering could give kids a spooky feeling.
- Someone close to the child should tell her, preferably in familiar surroundings that give her security.
- Give her as honest an explanation as possible within her limits of understanding.
- Avoid euphemisms (like lost or asleep). Young children interpret things literally.
- Recognize that repeated questions, either at the time you inform her or in the weeks and months afterward, are not as much for factual information about the death as they are for reassurance that the story hasn't changed.
- Predict for the child that she may feel sad and even have strange or different feelings for a while, and that you might even cry together.
- Tell her what to expect of the activities of the funeral and grief in general. Children should be allowed to attend a wake or funeral if they want to, but not forced to do so, and never forced to do anything like kiss the cheek of a corpse.
- Give affection and security. Assure her that she's part of the family and you'll all get through this together.
- Look for ways to help her express emotions both verbally and nonverbally, like through art and play.
- Watch out for her casual connection of her personal wishes or actions to the death of her loved one. (Ex: wishing someone were dead or would disappear.)
- Remember that no two children will react exactly the same way. Example: The family pet of two of my granddaughters died while the children were at school. When the girls (ages 5 and 3 ½) came home, the family talked and cried, and comforted each other, and then the girls went to their rooms to take their naps. After nap time, the 5-year-old was still weepy and wanted to carry a photo of him around with her. In contrast, the 3 ½-year-old wasn't crying. She got out of bed, walked over to her mother, said "I'm fine with it now, Mommy," and shrugged. "You and Daddy are still here."
- A child may not be able to remember a loved one in their absence. Photos do help, and this is so important, also in relation to the death of a relationship, like a divorce. Kids need pictures of Dad and Mom around their homes and their grandparents' homes.
- Realize that the child may be expressing feelings not only about the actual death itself but also about the changes in members of the family after the death.
- If the death is the result of a suicide, define it in simple and direct language that eliminates judgment, such as "when someone chooses to make their body stop working." Linda Goldman, author of Bart Speaks Out: Breaking the Silence of Suicide, writes that "Our inability to discuss suicide openly with children could create an atmosphere of secrecy, loneliness, and isolation that may be far more damaging than the actual death of someone close to them."
- Re-tell good memories. This is very important.
You may have concerns about whether or not the child's mourning is progressing normally, whether and how to recommend to the parents that their child may need professional help.
Here are some signs to look for, which are also applicable for child abuse as well as divorce:
- The child frequently asks for help with things that she was previously able to do by herself.
- Normal reactions go on for a protracted period of time.
- She cries a lot.
- Her performance declines and doesn't pick up again.
- She seems preoccupied, worried, anxious, and nervous.
- She develops fears that are unreasonable.
- She can't concentrate on schoolwork.
- Play centers on family breakup and coming back together again, illness, death, touching of her genital area, or hitting.
- She loses interest in playing; doesn't seem like a child anymore.
- She isolates.
- She seems to have low self-esteem and little self-confidence.
- Sleep problems develop.
- She wets the bed.
- She engages in provocatively sexual behavior.
When talking to the parents, ask if they've noticed anything different about their child. If they haven't, tell them what you've noticed and ask what they think it's about. Tell them that if it were your child, you'd want to get a professional opinion, or mention you'd worked with a similar child situation and how helpful input from a professional was.
If you suspect that a parent has abused a child in any way, consult immediately with the Department of Family and Children's Services, a therapist, and perhaps even an attorney.
If a child tells you that she's been sexually abused, your first reaction should always be to thank her for telling you and assure her that you know what to do to help her. Remember that sexual abuse is far more common in patriarchal systems, and because many church systems are still plagued with sexism, it is too frequently a system in which sexual abuse is perpetrated on children.
Never disregard a child's disclosure to you or your gut-level instincts, even if the alleged perpetrator is a member of the clergy. Each church should also have policies in place, guidelines to follow in these instances. Familiarize yourself with them. And if there are none, be proactive in making them happen.
In conclusion, a child who is dealing with loss has many of the same feelings and needs that we do, but because she is a child, she has far fewer resources and abilities to cope with her feelings than we have. It's up to us to provide them for her. And there is no shame in needing help with that.
Some Suggested Books for Children:
- The Divorce Workbook: A Guide for Children of Divorce, by Ives, Blakelee & Lash;
- What Can I Do?: A Book for Children of Divorce, by D. Lowry; "Badger's Parting Gifts" (a book about death) by Susan Varley
- Granddad's Prayers for the Earth (about death) by Douglas Woods
- Books from Centering Corporation's Seasons of Grief books (which include books for children on sibling grief, perinatal loss, mother on bed rest, living with cancer, pet death, natural disasters, new sibling, new school, death of a pet, death of a grandparent)
Gottman, John, Ph.D. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting.
Goldman, Linda, M.S. Bart Speaks Out: Breaking the Silence of Suicide.
Kaplan, Louise. Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual.
Phelen, Thomas, Ph.D. 1,2,3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12.
Rando, Theresa, Ph.D. How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies.
Sears, William and Martha. How to Have a Better Behaved Child, from Birth to Age 10.