How to Help Kids Process Grief After Experiencing Loss
My mother passed away when I was 10 years old and my little sister was only 3. It was tragic, unexpected and took everyone by surprise. Our entire family was rattled. I come from a long line of survivors, family on both sides having fled their respective homelands. They were resilient and stoic, byproducts of stuffing down the trauma and pain of religious and cultural persecution. And because of this, they folded the loss of my mother into that great well of sorrow and buried it deep within. There was little in the way of allowing their grief to be seen.
And while they did not encourage me to grieve, there was one overarching element that my father and all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and great aunts and uncles displayed and exercised which carried me through my great loss — and that is love.
I never for a moment questioned whether I was valued or cared for. Collectively, my family was always loving and supportive. For this, I am very grateful.
Now, as an adult, I recognize that no one ever modeled how to grieve. The people I loved and those who loved me, sheltered me from their grief as though nothing had happened. As a child, I learned to keep my pain to myself. Seeing through their masks I couldn’t bear to burden any of these people that I loved with my own pain and grief. So, I too learned to stuff it down or as I like to say, “shelf” it.
And as I went about living my adult life, I was surprised when grief flew off that dusty shelf and bit me in the ass. And now I’ve done the work that I wish I had begun when I was 10 years old and to be honest, I’m still doing the work.
I am all too aware of my mother’s mother in having lost her only child. At the age of 32, my father’s thick black hair, his eyebrows, and mustache faded to gray over the course of days following my mother’s death. These people were grieving, but how could they take care of themselves and me?
I’ve spent a lot of time researching grief and how to help yourself and others who are grieving. I want to share suggestions for how to parent through loss with you and I want to make it easy to reference and easy to remember, because let’s face it, this shit is complicated and what we need are the most basic tools.
Here is my brief guide:
- Put on your oxygen mask first.
You can’t help or care for your kids if you’re not caring for yourself. It’s so tough, especially if you’re a single parent, but it’s so important to be sure to do as much as you can to address your pain and grief first.
- Show your kids how to grieve.
Our kids learn from watching us and doing as we do. Model feelings of sadness. There’s no shame in being sad. Losing a spouse, partner or co-parent is super sad. Resist the urge to “stay strong.” This is unhealthy for you and is poor modeling for your child.
- Ask for help.
If there was ever a time to ask for help, this is it. Don’t be afraid to ask family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, your mechanic, even people at the gym. Ask them for what you need. Meals, carpools, pick up things at the grocery store, pie and even a hug. Whatever you need, people want to help, so please take advantage of their willingness and generosity.
- Focus on you and your family.
Don’t worry about returning phone calls, managing other people’s feelings or worrying about how other people feel or think about your grief. Your job is to focus on you and your kids and that’s plenty at this time.
- Call the Dougy Center right now.
If you’re in the US, the Dougy Center provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families grieving a death can share their experiences. The Dougy Center does not charge a fee for its services.
- Establish creative time together.
Playtime is so integral to healing and bonding. Spend time with your children journaling, playing music, dancing, reading, storytelling, gardening and even hiking.
- Talk about their person who died.
Whether it is a spouse, ex-spouse or child, it’s important to let your children know that it’s OK and healthy to speak their names and to share about them, both the good and their flaws.
- Make sure they know they’re loved.
As I said, make sure your kids know that you and so many others love them and that you’ve got their backs.
- Be honest and clear.
Using symbols and euphemisms can confuse and mislead children.
- Be patient.
Don’t expect children to understand things as you do. It’s important to recognize their grief journey and be different than yours and what you may want for them.
What suggestions have helped you and your family to process grief? Let us know in the comments below.
Follow Sarah’s journey here.
This story originally appeared on Medium