As a parent, you love your children and want to help them in every way possible. We want, more than anything, to protect our children from the really difficult, hard parts of life. But we can’t protect them from death and grief. When death comes into our lives we must grieve. Rather than trying to protect our children from grief, we need to face it with them and be there for them as they hurt with the pain of loss.
Here are some things that parents can do to help their grieving children:
- WORK ON YOUR OWN GRIEF. Allow your own feelings and find your own ways to express these feelings. For example write them down, talk to a trusted counselor or friend, cry, yell in the car and other safe places, visit the cemetery and talk to the person that died.
- LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to your children—listen with your ears, your heart and your eyes. Listen to what they say, what they do, and how they act. Watch their play and play with them. Especially young children act out their grief and feelings in their play. Provide them with art supplies and ideas about drawing happy memories they had with their Dad or Mom who died or sad times with the person who died. Ask them to draw how they look when they are sad or mad and to draw what makes them mad. Anger is a very normal feeling in grief. We want to help our children express their anger in safe ways. A punching bag or “whack-it” sock can be used to express their anger. Provide healthy ways for your children to express their anger and don’t allow them to hurt themselves, you or anyone else.
- BE AVAILABLE when you are able. Take time from your busy schedule to sit on the floor and play games together. Talk about your memories. Model that the deceased remains with us in our memories and stories; no one can ever take these away from us. Take time to listen to music or play basketball or other activities with teenagers and look for openings to talk and share memories and feelings. Be honest in sharing your feelings of good memories and sad memories. We all have both.
- BUILD MEMORIES. Share your memories of your loved one and encourage your children to share their memories. Think of having a place in the home where anyone in the family can go and write down or draw a memory they are having. Buy a box and allow your children to decorate it to make a “My special Memories of Dad.” They can put in objects that remind them of Dad, his watch, his baseball, his picture, a crayon representing his favorite color, and many other treasures.
- BE HONEST. Children have lots of questions about death, dying and being dead, both questions asked and unasked. Allow the questions, listen carefully and try to the best of your ability to answer the questions directly and honestly. If you don’t know the answer, say so.
- KEEP ROUTINES AND SCHEDULES. Kids and adults, when they are grieving, need to keep to routines and schedules that they are used to. After a few days or a week or so, kids need to go back to school, just as we need to go back to work or back to our routines.
- HUG YOUR CHILDREN. Your children need to know you love them and you need the hugs from your children.
- WATCH YOUR CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOR. If they are acting out more than before the death, showing problematic behaviors not previously seen and this continues, you may want to consult a professional counselor who works with children. Or, on the opposite side, maybe they’ve become perfect children and they were not before. Again talk to them, find out what is going on, and if it continues, consult with a professional counselor.
- USE YOUR FRIENDS, NEIGHBORS, RELATIVES. They are your safety net. Many people want to help you and your children. Ask a special friend or neighbor to take your children out for pizza once per week. Consult with your children’s teachers and counselor and with parents of your children’s friends to see what they are seeing and to enlist their help in supporting you and your children.
Finally and possibly most important, tell your children about all of the persons that love and care for them. Remind them of this regularly, because when children lose a parent they feel abandoned and unloved. Tell them who will take care of them if you should have to have surgery or get sick or have to go out of town on your job. Help them to know that you are not the only person that loves them and will take care of them.
Article by Elaine Tiller