Walking a child through grief may be one the hardest experiences we may have as parents. Instinctually, if we see our children in pain, we want to protect them and take it away. When they scrape their knee, we clean it up, slap on some boo boo cream, patch it up with a band aid, give them a hug and watch it heal in days. When we see them in emotional pain, we want to hold their heart tight until the discomfort passes and place it back once we feel it’s safe.
We know how pain feels. We’ve all felt it before. And we know how difficult it can be to let it go and how long it can take to heal. We don’t wish it on others (well, maybe sometimes), but we certainly don’t want our children to feel it because we can’t fix it for them or take it away. So when loss happens, and it always happens, how do we respond?
Step one, let them feel it. If they are sad, give them permission to be sad. You know how sad feels, share your own sadness with them as appropriate. Let them know its okay to be sad. If they are angry, let them be angry. Loss can be infuriating. We feel sorry for ourselves and the pain we must feel and question what the point of it all is. It’s okay to be angry and sad and it’s okay to feel guilt and relief at the same time. There is very little about grief that is abnormal and the more we give ourselves and our children permission to feel, the more we are able to let it out and let go.
Step two, model grief. Our children watch our every move and base many of their reactions on how they’ve learned to react. How do you grieve? Do you hold it all in and hope it will go away or do you allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling, express it and move forward. Our children watch us and wait for our cue on what is appropriate and acceptable and what is not. If you do not show emotion, they may feel it is not okay to express what they are feeling. If you talk about how you are feeling, they may be more likely to open up and feel secure with exposing their inner thoughts. Because we want to protect them from pain, we may feel like we need to shield them from our own, not wanting them to feel unsafe by our own perceived weaknesses and feeling we need to model our strength by pretending nothing hurts us. Yet in reality, showing them its okay to feel pain, cry, or express our own sadness and then pick ourselves up and move on to whatever is next in the day, teaches them what strength really is. We show them that we can stop what we are doing, let our guard down, feel what we need to feel and then regroup and continue living.
Step three, help them see the good. When we lose something, we hurt because we allowed ourselves to love and that is always a good thing. If we never experienced the joys of love, we would never experience the pain of loss. Help them focus on all the positives that came with the relationship. Timeless memories and lessons we learned from those who are no longer with us are often the most cherished because they can’t be replaced. Allow and assist them in their recollection of how good that person or relationship made them feel and let them know that we get to keep that…forever.
Grieving can be very painful. We are sad for the loss of what we had and the loss of what could have been. But with that pain can be growth. While managing our pain, we begin to learn coping skills that help aid us as we feel we are stumbling down our path. The more we model and teach good coping skills, the easier our children will learn how to build their own. Life will always provide roadblocks and we will always have the ability to circumnavigate around them or walk right through them, depending on high the blocks are built. We have the ability to show our children how to face fear and sadness even when we don’t want to. And although it may be a challenge, it’s a treasured lesson that will carry them through and build on itself through each experience.
If you would like more resources on helping your child, or yourself, with grief, The Dougy Center is The National Center for Grieving Families and Children and is a fantastic place to start. For more information, click here.