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Talking with Kids About Grief and Loss

Ask the Experts by Mary Beth Garvey

Q: How can I talk with my children about a recent death when I am struggling to deal with my own feelings of grief?

A: As a parent, it is our instinct to protect our kids from pain and minimize the loss they experience. There are many ways to comfort our children during difficult periods, but often we feel we have to mask our own response to grief as a way of protecting them.

Though understandable, given how vulnerable we feel after a loss, it undermines the powerful example we provide about how to endure, cope and continue to move forward despite intense emotions. When your children see you struggle, then recover, you instill hope. When they observe that you are tearful or sad one moment and then engaged in your usual routine in the next, they learn it’s okay to move in an out of grief. When you talk about your feelings openly, and don’t discourage negative emotions, you reinforce that it is okay to be wherever they need to be in their grief.

Grieving is different for children because their ability to attend to intense emotions is limited. So the above examples are invaluable for them. In addition to modeling healthy ways to cope, you can also support kids by:

• Giving them information about the loss using simple, honest, age appropriate terms. Don’t use euphemisms or half-truths – it only frightens and confuses them.
• Letting kids talk about it repeatedly if they need to. This won’t make it worse. It helps them dismantle their grief. They need frequent reassurance.
• Encouraging expressive outlets through drawing, writing or play.
• Reading relevant books with your kids. It helps to find the words for difficult issues, gives children a chance to project their feelings onto story characters, and discuss how they might feel in non-threatening ways.
• Normalizing their emotions and instilling hope that they will not always feel like they do in that moment. Let them know it’s okay to grieve, but it’s also okay not to grieve – to laugh, play, enjoy friends and forget about their sadness.
• Providing structure, routine and predictability. This instills safety, normalcy and a sense of control.

Children are incredibly resilient. Given the room and support to grieve as they need to, they have an amazing capacity to recover. We don’t have to mask our own intense emotions as we help them through the process.

Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a therapist in private practice in Grosse Pointe. She works with children, adolescents, adults and families and can be reached at 313.408.2180 or Garvey is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals. 

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