How to help children handle grief after the death of a parent
From an article on Huffington Post
No matter how old you are, the death of a family member can bring up a range of difficult and often overwhelming emotions: shock, deep sadness, confusion, anxiousness and anger, just to name a few. For bereaved children dealing with the loss of an important figure like a parent, these intense feelings can be particularly hard to process. Kids need their surviving parent, caregivers or the other trusted adults in their lives to help them navigate the murky waters of grief.
Grief therapists and counsellors share what a parent can do to lovingly support a young child after the other parent has died. Here is an abridged version:
1. How to talk about the death with your child
Death is a challenging subject to discuss with anyone, let alone a child. But sugarcoating it or avoiding the topic as a way to protect your kid can do more harm than good, experts say. Language matters, so be aware of the words you choose - children tend to take things literally. Stick to simple and direct language. Don’t be afraid to use words like “died” and “killed,” even if they seem harsh. With younger kids, you can also say something like, “Daddy’s heart stopped beating,” and emphasize how we need our hearts to work in order to stay alive.
Be honest about the nature of the death while taking your child’s age into account.
You want to be as straightforward as possible about how their parent died, but only to a degree that’s appropriate for your child’s age and developmental stage. Going into too much detail can overwhelm a younger mind, so keep your explanations truthful but brief.
Children around 3-5 years also have what’s called “magical thinking”, so they may believe they’re somehow responsible for their parent’s death because of something they said, thought or did, or that the parent can be brought back to life. Reassure them that they did not cause the death and it is not some form of punishment.
Encourage your child to ask questions about the death.
Letting your child know it’s OK if they have questions about what happened to their parent will help ensure that death doesn’t become a taboo subject in your house. And what your child asks may give you insight into how they’re dealing with things.
2. What you need to know to help your child grieve
Guiding your child through their grief while you’re grieving yourself can be difficult, to say the least.
Allow your kids to attend the funeral — if they want to.
You should never force your child to go to the wake, funeral or burial of a parent. That said, if they want to go, let them. Giving your child the option to have that closure, if they want it, can be valuable in their healing. But make sure you prepare them beforehand for what they might see or hear.
If they want to be there, arrange for a person they’re comfortable with to accompany them to the service, as you will likely be too distracted to give them the attention they need, Schiffman said. And if the child says they want to leave or take a break at any point, allow them to do so. Afterwards, expect that your child may ask you questions.
Know that children grieve differently than adults.
So try not to jump to conclusions about what your child is — or isn’t — feeling. For example, grieving in bursts is totally normal for children, even though it may seem odd to the parent. Grieving children may go from being visibly upset in one moment, to laughing and playing in the next. Ask them open-ended questions about how they’re doing and really listen to their answers.
It’s OK for your child to see you sad sometimes.
Don’t feel pressured to disguise your feelings and “be strong” for your children all the time. You’re also going through an intensely stressful and emotional period so it’s only natural that you’d be upset.
Try to keep your child’s routine as consistent as possible.
Structure gives children security during a scary time. That also means keeping household rules and discipline the same - it will help the child feel secure. And before your child goes back to school, be sure to let their teacher, counselor and the administrators know what happened. They can check in with the student, offer support and make note of any concerning changes in their behavior.
Your son or daughter may be more clingy after the death.
It’s common for a child who’s lost a parent to develop an intense fear of losing the other one. This may translate into a preoccupation with the living parent’s health and safety. They will often want to sleep in the bed or on the floor near the surviving parent. Reassure them that your health is good and that you are there to take care of them.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
You may be so focused on making sure your children are OK that you neglect to tend to your own grief. Practicing some form of self-care — whether that’s journaling, getting some exercise, going to therapy or joining a grief support group — can help you cope with the loss, while also putting you in a better position to be able to help your kids.
3. Ways to keep the parent’s memory alive
Finding ways to commemorate the parent who died can be healing for both you and your kids. In the short term, this may include allowing your child to participate in the funeral or memorial service in some way (e.g. writing a letter to put in the casket, helping choose the family photos that will be on display, drawing a picture for the parent). Later on, it might mean planting a tree in the parent’s honour, visiting one of their favourite places, celebrating the parent’s birthday, framing photos to hang in their bedroom or around the house and just regularly talking and sharing memories about the person.
Creating a scrapbook or memory box can help the child feel connected to a parent who has died. It allows them to revisit those memories whenever they wish. Consider helping your child put together a memory box that contains letters, cards, photos and other keepsakes that remind them of their parent.
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From an article on Huffington Post, 09/10/2019