When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. Depending on how you deal with grief, you will help your child deal with it too.
At various times, and depending on your child’s personal preferences, you can employ different solutions to help your child cope with grief. These might be (but aren’t limited to):
1. Holding your child – Unfortunately, this is used too little once children grow beyond 5 – 7 years of age. Your teenage son may not feel comfortable if you give him a full-frontal embrace as you did when he was a child, but you can definitely put your arm around him, or hold his arm, or use touch effectively to convey your understanding of and sympathy with his feelings of loss.
2. Talking – Your child may want to talk, or not. It’s easier if she wants to talk, because you will be able to understand some of the emotions she is grappling with. But if she isn’t, you can still draw her out. Share a story where a child is dealing with loss. This could be a true story of how you or anyone else your child connects with, had to experience loss as a child, and how you (or the person) dealt with it. If there is no true story, share a fictional story. Stories are a great way to obliquely approach issues either you or your child is not comfortable talking about openly.
3. Dedicating a project – Consider dedicating a project to the departed person. Every time your child is taken over by searing grief, he could write about what is troubling him at that time. An example:
If your child can’t handle walking into a house where the dog that welcomed him home is no more, let him write about it in a diary, or draw a picture of it. Or locate a photo of the pet jumping up at him in welcome. These little remembrances can then be collected in some form which would act as a remembrance to the pet.
Slowly, as your child begins to deal with the memories, the reality of life with the one who is gone emerges. Instead of being only the ‘beloved’ dog, he also becomes the ‘naughty’ dog who always chewed your child’s toys, the ‘greedy’ one who stole sausages and cookies out of plates when no one was looking (and sometimes even when they were! 🙂 ), the ‘irritating’ one who had to be taken out twice to do his business late at night in the winters… Balance begins to be restored.
You can formalize the remembrance in the form of a photo album which is sent to close friends and family, or you may even consider enrolling them into the project. In this way, you may all help each other find healing, peace, and acceptance.
4. Creating rituals – You may find it helpful to create rituals – anything that gives a sense of order to your child. “Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so we’ll buy a rose every Sunday to remember her.” It could be much simpler. ““Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so every Sunday you could learn the name of one variety of rose (or draw her a card with a rose on it).” “He loved reading books, so we’ll buy you a book every month in memory of his love for books.”
You need to be careful when creating rituals – create and execute with a light touch; you don’t want your child getting obsessed with the performance of these rituals.
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. But your child may be feeling many other emotions which might take you by surprise. You might need to work hard to get your child even to acknowledge them, but most children do feel these emotions in small or large measure when a loved one dies.
These are the emotions you need to address if you want your child to be equipped with the means to handle loss, especially loss due to death:
1. Confusion – “What will happen now?” No matter how young your child may be, explain to her in a way she understands, what comes next. What will happen to the body? What happens to the dead person’s effects – clothes, toiletries, papers, car – all the detritus of life? What are the rituals your family will follow? What is their significance? How might these rituals be different from those your child is familiar with through movies, TV, story books etc? What happens to the person’s room / house?
Answering these questions will help her feel more settled about all the chaos that attends a death. It will help her to feel like she’s part of what’s going on. Depending upon the circumstances, you may even want her to share in some of these tasks / rituals, such as choosing a favorite photo, or deciding which memento she’d like for herself, or whom to give some of the effects to.
2. Fear – “I once did / thought / said something bad to / about the person who has died. If they are angry with me, will they come back to haunt me? Will they send me ‘bad luck’? Will they make me or someone else die?” Draw out your child to speak about these emotions. Again, stories are great for this. Then help him deal with the fear.
3. Anger – “Why did … have to die?” The subtext being: “Why now? Why this way? Why not someone else?” Explain that everyone has to die sometime, and the time and manner of our death is not of our own choosing. (This won’t work if the person has committed suicide, in which case you need to deal with far greater feelings of fear, confusion, and guilt.)
I once read a story that might help you answer the question “Why did it have to be …?”
Someone lost his mother, and he raved, “Why my mother? Why my mother? Why not someone else?”
His father, who was equally broken-hearted, replied: “Okay. Let’s say it shouldn’t have been your mother. Whose mother should it have been? Pick a friend – name one – whose mother should have died instead of yours.”
The child could give no answer, but the silence was the beginning of his acceptance of the fact of his mother’s death. Death has to happen. To everyone. The only thing you can do – for yourself, for your loved ones, and for the one who is no more, is to accept it, and move on.
4. Guilt – “I didn’t do enough for … when they were alive, and now I can’t ever do what I meant to do.” “I was mean, and I didn’t get a chance to say I’m sorry.” All of us suffer from guilt – it is part of the human condition, and the best we can hope for is to make our peace with it. Explain to your child that no matter how much love he had shown for the dead person, he would always reproach himself; he would always feel that there was more he could have done. Tell him this feeling is natural. Let him know that the departed person would hate for him to feel so burdened. He (the child) was much loved by the dead person, who would hate to see him so sad and feeling guilty about non-issues. Essentially, you’re telling your child: “Be happy for …’s sake.”
5. Responsibility – “… died because I did / did not do something.” Does this sound ridiculous? Maybe, but it isn’t. Children have a tremendously inflated sense of their own importance. They feel that the sun rises and sets by their wish. So it is natural that they understand every event as a natural result of something that they did or did not do. Death is an event too. And you need to help them realize that powerful as they are, they do not control death.
Maybe your child’s toy tripped up the grandparent, who fell and injured herself so seriously that she died. Your child will feel responsible, because it was her job to put her toys away, and she had been reminded to do this even on the fateful day, but had postponed doing it. And then – her grandmother tripped on the toy…
You could try explaining in many ways: “Gran had to go some way – it happened to be this way. It was just chance.” “So many people trip over toys (and other things), but they don’t always hurt themselves enough to die from it.” “The toys lay around the floor every day for weeks and months and years, without anybody being harmed by them.” “Gran never tripped over anything usually, even the toys in her way. Maybe she lost her balance only on that day. Maybe she was dizzy from being unwell or from some medication she was taking”…
Helping your child cope with the death of a loved one involves much more than just dealing with feelings of loss and grief. And you need to be ready to help him deal with it all. It won’t be easy. It will take time. It will seem like you are moving two steps back for every step you take forward. But it will happen; you and your child will cope – well.
I wish you healing and peace.