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Tools That Equip Children to Handle Loss
by Vicki Straughan, LMSW   Director, Dallas Kids GriefWorks

Loss is the price we pay for loving. Given the benefits of loving others, we are typically willing to risk loss to love someone.  We do not anticipate loss when we begin to love someone, but in this life, loss is inevitable.  Several years ago a longevity study was conducted, and the only common link that could be found to explain why people live as long as they do was how the people handled loss.  If children do not experience consequences and are not allowed to feel loss if it occurs, they may not develop the depth of character that could best serve them in life. Below are some tools that help equip children to handle loss.

1. Believing that children grieve losses can help them feel open to sharing feelings they have associated with grief.

Adults often have the urge to protect children from the pain of loss, and this can translate to a child’s feeling that he or she is not being heard or validated. I heard a dear man pray once to “protect these children from pain” when a child had been killed, and his friends were hurting because he was not in school or in the neighborhood to play. The truth is that these children needed to acutely feel their pain. They had loved this child, and they felt bad that he had died.  Feeling bad is appropriate after the death of someone we love. More appropriately, his prayer may have been, “help these children bear the pain they feel because someone they loved has gone and will not return to them.” In that prayer is the validation that love hurts when there is loss associated with it.

How to give your child this tool:

  • When a child expresses feelings related to a loss, listen without judging or trying to change the child’s mind.
  • Tell your child it is okay to feel bad or sad when something bad or sad happens, rather than trying to move him quickly to feeling better.
  • Be honest about a loss. Trying to keep information from a child is more harmful than giving him information at a level he can understand.
  • Allow a child to ask any question he desires related to matters happening in his life. “I don’t know” is an appropriate answer to some questions.
  • Remember children know more than you think they do about what is going on around them.

2. Acknowledging loss in a child’s life can help them cope with the current loss and prepare for future losses.

The death of a pet, a move, a friend moving away, a divorce, and other losses cause a child to grieve. If a child is companioned through his/her grief, he/she will learn how to mourn losses. Jennifer’s gerbil died, and her mother participated in the funeral service for the gerbil that her daughter planned. There were hymns, eulogies, and sharing of good memories about this really good gerbil that had been a part of their family. Jennifer was not discouraged in her need to say goodbye to her pet with ritual. I will speak more about funeral and memorials later. John James and Russell Friedman suggest when there is a move from one house to another, the family has a ritual to say goodbye to the old house. Frequently, adults expect children to be excited about a move when the children feel the loss of familiar surroundings, the loss of their neighborhood friend, etc. By going room to room and remembering times spent there, a family can help each member to deal with the emotions of leaving a place they love.

How to give your child this tool:

  • Don’t assume you know how your child feels.
  • Take time to discuss events in your child’s life and ask them to teach you how they view this event.
  • Don’t rush your child to some happy conclusion.
  • Give your child opportunity for ritual goodbyes

3. Modeling appropriate expression of feelings will teach a child that feelings are normal, and there are ways to express them that are healing.

I often hear adults say that they hide from their children when they cry so that the children will think the adults are “okay.” Children often tell me they know their parents are crying. Children are remarkably astute when it comes to knowing what is going on in a situation of loss. A parent told a grief group coordinator not to tell her child that his father had committed suicide. She had told him that the father died in a car accident. The child told his grief group that his mother believed that his father had died in a car accident, but he really had committed suicide. It was a great relief to this child to be able to be truthful and express his honest feelings of grief. Other parents will turn to professionals for help getting their child to expression emotions.  When asked if they show their emotions to the child, the parents admit they shield the child from their own expressions of grief. Children need reassurance that expressing sadness and other feelings is normal and should hear “we’re going to be okay even though we are sad.”

How to give your child this tool:

  • When loss occurs in the family, express you feelings in front of your children, while assuring them you and they are going to be okay.
  • Use language that will teach children healthy expression of feelings.
  • Be honest about what has occurred so that you don’t have to change your story- ever.
  • Get support or treatment for yourself if necessary.

4. Encouraging ritual will help a child begin the healing process.

Our society does not have a great deal of ritual. In Victorian times, there were strict rituals observed by grieving people. They wore black for a year and avoided any social engagements. Anyone could recognize that a person was grieving. Today, no such rituals dictate to us. We believe that children benefit from participating in funeral and memorial rituals. They often tell of feeling angry when they are left out of these important times that mark the life of the person they loved. Children can be asked to what degree they would like to be included in the funeral or memorial of a loved one. They can be included from passing out memorial programs to speaking, reading, etc. 

How to give your child this tool:

  • Understand that ritual is important.
  • Believe that it is good for children to participate in rituals, such as funerals and memorials, whatever their age. They need opportunity to say goodbye, too.
  • Allow older children to help plan rituals, including holidays.
  • Increase the number of rituals, ceremonies and celebrations in your family.

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