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Discussing Loss with a Child: Suggestions for Starting the Conversation

Recently, I attended a funeral for my dear friend who had a significant impact during my adolescence. As the days led up to the funeral, I looked for a babysitter but was unable to find one so I needed to take my 5-year old son. I had concerns about what behavior he would have throughout the event and what he would think or take away from it. I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. He was well behaved and respectful throughout the day. He showed sympathy by giving me a tissue when he saw my crying and empathized with my friend’s son who was visibly saddened.

A few days later, we were working on a holiday craft and my son started asking questions about the funeral. “Why did we go?” he asked and “Was she your family?” He was able to reflect on the emotions of others. He commented on my friend’s son’s emotions and said, “It’s good that it wasn’t his mom so he still has someone to care for him.” He stated, “I would be so sad if you died.” He then proceeded to ask questions about how people die.

This situation really had me reflecting about how to talk to children about death and should they attend a funeral.

How to talk to your children about death

When deciding how to talk to a child about death, consider the age and development of the child. Children process death differently than adults. They may realize that they feel sad but may not understand the permanency of death. Here are some suggestions to start the conversation.

  • Be honest and straightforward. Telling a child that a loved one is “in a better place” can be confusing and send a message that there is something wrong with this place. Instead, you could say, “Uncle Jack died in a car accident. That means that we won’t get to see him anymore.”
  • Answer questions honestly and directly. When your child asks when Fluffy the pet turtle is coming home gently remind the child that Fluffy has died and will not be coming home.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Children learn from the way we act and respond in daily events. Shedding tears in sadness of the loss is appropriate for your child to see and it will help them learn how to cope with emotions when they come up. With this, encourage your child to express their emotions.

Remember that children will have their own reaction to loss. Offer empathy and understanding through emotions or disruptive behaviors.

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Get Over It!

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“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same. Nor would you want to!” – Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler from “On Grief and Grieving”

We live in a society that is uncomfortable with death and grieving; we just want people to “get over it” and be done. It makes us feel better if they are back to “normal” and are “okay”, then we can return to our lives without guilt. However, grief is complicated, messy, and full of emotions that we don’t want to acknowledge, let alone feel. So, what happens when we lose, or someone that we are close to, loses a person in their life? A spouse, child, parent, or friend. How can we help them, or ourselves, with this messy grief business? Honestly, the answer is so simple yet so complicated at the same time; grief is as unique and individual for each person as their fingerprint. There is no “right” way to do it. As a widow myself, there are a few things that I found, and continue to find, as being helpful and healing in my grief journey.

Be There

Grieving is a lonely, isolating business. Sure, there is the initial influx of mourners that surround the family in the days and weeks immediately following the loss, but what about after that? Can you be that person that shows up, texts, or calls just to chat, go for a walk, or grab a cup of coffee and give the grief stricken a sense of normalcy while chaos reigns elsewhere in their life? It’s often said, “Let me know what I can do to help.” Often however, in the midst of grief people aren’t even aware of what they need, nor do they want to impose on family or friends and ask for help, but they crave human interaction and connection. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just knowing that someone is there and cares can make all the difference during those really difficult moments.

Listening to the Tale

Just as each person has their own grief journey they each have their own tale of grief, how they came to the painful spot where they dwell. While those on the periphery may have witnessed and been part of that journey, it may be surprising how the mourner interprets their experience. For some, telling the tale is cathartic and allows them to release what they’ve held within themselves: guilt, shame, anger, fear, relief. While for others it gives them space to voice the confusion of trying to process a surreal experience.

My experience with losing my husband landed me squarely in the “trying to process the surreal experience” camp. Trying to wrap my head around him being here one minute and gone the next was really difficult for me to wrap my head around. My friends and family were all present in witnessing, but I needed to express what it was like for me. I felt almost desperate, at times, to have someone understand and validate me. I didn’t need anyone to “fix” it for me, they couldn’t, but to have them say, “Yep, that sucked!”, meant the world to me.

The “Right” Way Doesn’t Exist

As a society we have constructed this movie image of what grief should look like, the bereaved go into a deep mourning for a while, but then they pull themselves together, “move on” with their lives, and the grief is finished. In reality, grief presents itself in a multitude of variations. For some there is the anticipatory grief that accompanies a long illness. For others there is the acute, shocking grief from a sudden death. Yet still for others there is the guilt-ridden survivors’ grief that can accompany trauma and suicide. With such differences in experiences how can we really expect for people to process grief in the same way? Within the same timeline? And with the same reactions? We can’t; it’s a preposterous assertion.

Need help or know someone that needs help processing the grief related to losing a loved one? Wasatch Family Therapy has a team of therapists that can help you wade through the sea of emotions that accompany the grief journey, we would be honored to stand witness to your tale and help you find the “new” you that evolves from the death experience.

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What To Do When Your Child Is Grieving

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Dealing with the death of a family member or close friend can be a time of great challenge. One of the most difficult tasks following the death of a loved one is discussing and explaining the death with children and adolescents in the family. This comes at a time when parents and caregivers are dealing with their own grief, and may be drained of energy and emotions.

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