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Helping Children Grieve

Today’s post is written by author & therapist Victoria Hendricks. 

No parent wants to use the words “child” and “death” in the same sentence.  But life doesn’t always honor our wants. In the best circumstances we can introduce children to death gradually.  We can talk to the three year old about the difference between the live ant that crawls and the dead ant that lies still and stiff.  We can have a sad, sweet funeral for the gold fish with the kindergartener.
Sometimes though, death doesn’t give us time to prepare children gently and gradually.  Sometimes a beloved uncle dies of a sudden heart attack, a friend is killed by a car, or a parent is diagnosed with a life threatening disease and then succumbs.  What can we do for our children then, when we are hurting and in shock and they need information and support, right then?
When my daughters were five and nine, their daddy died of cancer within nine months of diagnosis.  The bad news is that, even with training as a grief counselor, I could not spare them pain and after effects of that loss.  The good news is both of them feel that they understood what was going on with their daddy and his death and that they felt loved and safe, even when very sad.
So what is helpful when the bottom falls out and you and your children are faced with the unspeakable?
Tell the truth.  Tell it in simple, age appropriate terms, but don’t sugar coat. Euphemisms are confusing.  Especially avoid any likening of death to sleep, so  children won’t become afraid of sleep. Explain the “why” of the particular death accurately because children tend to blame themselves even when that doesn’t seem reasonable at all.  Truth fights that tendency. Tell your truth about the spiritual aspects of death too.  You can say that others believe differently, but telling a story one doesn’t believe isn’t helpful.
Answer questions as many times as they ask.  Sometimes children need many repetitions, and they definitely need to hear about their losses at different developmental stages over the years, so that their understanding can develop with them.
Remember grief comes in a wave form that hits cyclically.  That’s true for all of us, but for little children the waves hit close together and emotions shift quickly.  It’s completely normal for a five year old to be weeping inconsolably and then in ten minutes, be laughing and chasing a friend.  Remember anger as well as sadness is part of grief and let your child know that too and have safe outlets for anger. Let your child know that all feelings are normal and feelings pass.

Develop rituals that work for you and your child, whether telling a story, lighting a candle, or going to a grave site.  It doesn’t matter what you do, but that you and the grieving child do something together that opens conversation about the loss and allows you to share it.
Be clear with your child that she or he will be taken care of no matter how sad you are and no matter how hard things get.

Take care of yourself.  Use your own support system.  Your child needs you strong.  Love truly is stronger than loss in the end, or so it has seemed in my life, but loss hurts and we don’t need to pretend it doesn’t in order to protect and nurture our children.

Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individual & couples.  Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still, so I’m very excited to be able to include this post from her today.  If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh  AT  aol  DOT  com.


6 Comments on “Helping Children Grieve

  1. Heartfelt and extremely helpful essay by Victoria Hendricks that you posted today. Victoria recommended your website to me and it has so much great information in it. Thank you for highlighting the book about the bunny and anger. I plan to order it as well as some others I’m mulling over.
    I’ll be visiting your website often.

  2. As someone who knows Victoria Hendricks and her writing, I loved her essay and the way she uses her life experience to help others. I also loved going through the many useful parenting topics on your blog. I wish this resource had been available when I was a mom. I’ll be back when grandchildren enter my life.

  3. Victoria Hendricks, your piece on helping children grieve is poignant and powerful. I have lost a child and your words ring true for me. The steps you list are good ones for anyone who is grieving and, since I have a daughter I thought about her as I read your post and wondered if I could have done more to help her.
    What was so powerful for me is that you can use these steps for anyone grieving. “Answer questions as many times as they ask”, really hits home. I know I had to tell my story over and over and over again and that their was healing in that. I would never have known that, or known that that would be a step in healthy grieving until I lived it myself. It would have been nice to have read this article when my son died. I desparately wanted a road map for that road I was on and there didn’t seem to be one. Grief comes in waves and hits when you least expect it, so true. We have developed new rituals so that every holiday and every celebration isn’t quite so painful. Thanks for this article, I think its going to be very valuable.

  4. Such wise and clear advice, Victoria. Judy is right that these tips will help for anyone who is grieving, from the young to senior citizens. I too found your site through Victoria’s suggestion and have passed it on to my daughter, an elementary school teacher with a four-year-old of her own. Great topics you have covered here in general and I enjoyed reading.

  5. Victoria, in my opinion, your ideas were excellent. I agree with the idea of telling the truth, not hiding the truth in any way. I think if the truth is not told a child will sense it, and more damage will be done because the child has received a mixed message.
    I also agree about answering questions as often as asked. I think a child needs repetition. Look how often a child watches a particular video. In regard to major life happenings, I believe a child needs to know answers over and over and feel free to ask as many times as he needs to. A child should never feel unheard in this regard.
    Thank you for your insightful and helpful article.

  6. Very well written advice. I agree that telling the truth to the child as best as you know it, and answering as many times as questions are asked is very important, especially because this can stop the child from finding a way to blame him/her self. I believe that truth is always the best way, even when it is hard. One of my mantras is “Truth is the shortest distance to any destination”. This is an excellent website.