Helping a Grieving Child
By Judy Strong
Raising a happy, healthy child is both a joy and a responsibility for parents. Devoting time and energy to that end is its own reward when essentials are in place and your child feels safe and loved.
Would that we could always spare a child from pain and sadness. When a child loses someone she loves, we want to wrap her in comfort and make it all better. But grief takes time and healing is a long process.
According to statistics, one child in twenty will lose a parent before their senior year in high school. This means there are millions of children in various stages of grief at any given time. What are the issues involved for a child in mourning?
Children feel abandoned, not only by the one who has died, but by the world in general. Safety and security is derived from the family circle, and when someone dies, their worldview is altered. Feelings of isolation and insecurity become a constant, leaving the child anxious and worn out, and grieving can’t take place until the child feels safe.
Two deeply felt fears are shared by children who have lost a parent. One is that they will forget the parent who has died. The loss is unbearable, and the thought of forgetting that irreplaceable person is unthinkable.
The other fear is that of losing the surviving parent. Something too awful has already happened to one beloved parent. What if something happened to the one remaining? These strongly felt emotions leave a child feeling isolated, bewildered, and insecure. As we can see, there is an enormous need for caring adults to comfort and assure these children and help them to heal.
The adults closest to a bereaved child are the ideal people to give comfort and understanding. Their efforts may be impaired because of their own state of mourning. However, the surviving parent, grandparents, an aunt or uncle should explain truthfully what has happened, keeping in mind the child’s age. Assurance that they will be taken care of is paramount. This is a major concern to a child, even a teenager. Listening, answering questions about where their parent may be or when he/she is coming back need to be addressed factually, as well as lovingly. Children need specifics and can handle the truth.
Remembering their beloved parent may be done in several ways, including memory books, planting a tree or garden, or establishing a fund or legacy. Children like tangible things, so something they can see or a place to go is ideal.
What can others do to help a child to heal from grief? Anyone who sees the child regularly can become a “comforter” to this child. That might be a teacher, day care provider, coach, piano teacher, after school program leader, neighbor, or family friend. Consistency is more important than a particular time commitment. Ask questions, inquire about the child and the family, and listen. Ask about feelings –sadness, confusion, anger – and share with the child how you feel about their loss. You may say, “I’m very sad about your dad and I miss him,” or “When I lost someone, I felt sad for a long time.” Depending on your relationship with the child, make a helpful offer. This may include an outing together, sharing pictures for their memory book, or just brightening their day with a small privilege or extra attention. Connecting with a grieving child respects the fact of the loss and extends to him warmth and understanding.
Restoring a grieving child to his once happy state of mind may take considerable time. Understanding the problems and concerns such a child experiences, and knowing what helps bring healing, gives loving adults a head start toward creating positive change. A child who has learned to cope with pain and loss may someday reach out to others who are in need. They have acquired a sense of hope and confidence that will serve them well.
Copyright©Judy Strong 2011.