What Parents Can Do to Help Children Process Loss
Ask the Experts by Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW
Q: How should I talk with my kids about losses in our community? I try to shield them, but over the past year they have heard a lot of discussion as people continue to struggle with deaths that have occurred in our community.
A: It is a parent’s natural instinct to protect their children from difficult issues, but the fact that your kids are hearing so much about recent deaths in our community reflects our own reaction to these painful losses. Many young people and adults are experiencing the secondary trauma of a sudden death and a homicide of two well-known, engaged parents who were closely connected with many facets of our day to day lives in our schools, public service organizations, children’s activities and social lives.
There are a number of factors that can influence the degree of distress experienced by children who are aware of a trauma in their community:
- how close the child is to the location of the threatening or frightening event
- how close it is to where the child lives
- how long a child’s exposure is to the event, including exposure to media coverage
- the degree of preoccupation with the event by adults with who the child is closest, and
- whether the child had a relationship with the deceased or their family.
Children will experience loss in different ways, especially depending on their age. Children in their early school years are just beginning to understand that death is permanent and may need to hear information about what happened over and over again. They are often matter of fact in how they talk about death and have many questions. Often they can’t articulate how they feel, but demonstrate it in their behavior and play.
Older children can articulate their feelings better, though they may choose not to. They have a strong sense of right and wrong and may have strong views about what has happened. They often have a greater interest in spiritual questions and have a greater empathy about what other are going through in response to the death.
Teenagers can be greatly affected by grief. They can be become withdrawn or moody and often go to their friends for support more than their family. Teenagers may cover up their sadness with angry or acting out behavior, but they still need a great deal of support as well as a quiet place to deal with their grief.
When talking with your about your children about a loss due to violence you may want to emphasize that senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand, even grownups. Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others because they may be unable to handle their anger, may be suffering from untreated mental illness, or may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Reiterate that violence is never a solution to personal problems and there are always viable alternatives.
Children are not only impacted by the initial loss of a death in the community, but also the secondary losses:
- The loss of security – the uncertainly of knowing what to expect, what will come next and how to manage their emotional response.
- The loss of feeling safe – the vulnerability of feeling exposed or unprotected, accepting the idea that bad things can happen to people they know or in their community.
What Parents Can Do
- Keep to family routines as much as you can to provide security and predictability.
- Provide a safe environment where your child can express feelings in whatever way he can, ask questions and talk with a caring adult.
- Don’t feel you have to have all the answers. Sometimes just listening, or being with someone is their grief is most critical.
- Find out what they already know about what happened and what they need to know about death and dying.
- Be honest. Tell children what happened briefly and clearly. Children will press for more information if they need it.
- Be aware that children grieve in “bursts” – allow them to talk about it and disengage when they need to. Follow their cues.
- Give them permission to not be grieving, even if others are sad or struggling with their grief.
- Maintain rules about what is expected. Changing how you parent will only make them feel more out of control.
- Share your own grief to normalize what they are feeling but reassure them that you are in control and will help them feel safe.
- Get support for yourself as a parent, model good self-care.
- Allow for extra time together for closeness and reassurance.
- Use spiritual supports if this is a comfort for your family.
- Help kids identify their support network and healthy coping skills.
- Instill hope that it won’t always feel this badly – their grief will ease.
Children’s grief and adult’s grief can have a reciprocal impact. When this happens, you need to address it. Talk with a supportive friend or a professional who understands the grieving process and give you and your kids the time and space you need to begin the healing process.
Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a Clinical Therapist who works with children, adolescents and adults. She can be reached at 313.408.2180. Garvey is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals.
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