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Parenting Children Through Grief

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A few weeks ago, I received a call that broke my heart: my daughters’ grandfather passed away. Even though I’m no longer a part of that family because of divorce, I felt my own sadness with the news. I’d spent the better part of a decade referring to this man as my father-in-law, and he was one of the few people in my ex-husband’s family who seemed to genuinely care about me.

Regardless of my own emotions, though, I knew that the pain I felt could not compare to what my daughters would experience. After all, they were losing their grandfather, and this is the first major loss on either side of the family since they were born.

Needless to say, I have spent the past several weeks helping my children process their grief and cope with the waves of emotions they’ve experienced. While parenting through grief and loss is never easy, I hope that sharing these tips can help other parents navigate the difficult moments more effectively so they can support their children.

Share Information Openly

As parents, we feel obligated to protect our children from anything that may hurt them, including death and other types of heartbreaking news. However, most experts say that it’s actually best to share information with your children in a way that’s developmentally appropriate and helps them fully process what is going on.

When explaining the situation to your child, use clear, concise language that helps them fully understand the situation. While you don’t have to provide every single medical detail, do consider what information will benefit your child and let them ask questions if they desire. Also, avoid expressions that may not make sense to children (like “passed on” or “took a long nap”) as these can confuse kids and leave them wondering when their loved one will return.

By sharing openly and honestly, you can help your child understand the situation and better process their grief throughout the coming weeks.

Answer Their Questions (as Best as You Can)

Anytime something new happens in a child’s life, they have lots of questions. While we may not have the answers to everything, answering their questions as best as we can helps our children make sense of new, confusing events while also easing their fears about the situation. In the case of a loss of a loved one, children often experience large amounts of fear and pain that they don’t always know how to express, especially when their little brains are still trying to make sense of things.

About a week after my daughters’ grandfather died, my oldest daughter asked me lots of questions about what happens after someone dies. While I obviously couldn’t answer that with any sort of certainty, I did provide her with what information I could about religious beliefs concerning the afterlife. It opened up the floor to a great discussion, and at the end she seemed satisfied. I didn’t realize it in the moment, but upon reflecting on the conversation I had a realization: my child just wanted me to answer her questions because it provided her with comfort.

It may be hard to answer all of your child’s questions about death and grief, but as long as you acknowledge their questions and answer them as best as you can, your kids will feel much better about everything that’s going on.

Provide Lots of Love

While there are many things you can do for your children after a loss, I personally believe the best thing you can do for them is provide lots of love and attention during this difficult time. Many young children lack the vocabulary and emotional intelligence to accurately describe how they’re feeling when they experience complex emotions like grief or heartache. However, you can help them deal with these intense emotions and work through them by offering your support and unconditional love.

Be sure to tell your children that you love them, provide hugs when they ask (or offer them without prompting), and let them know you’re here to support them in any way they need. Don’t just assume they know these things — make it very obvious. Whether you realize it or not, just doing these things will help your child feel loved and less alone while they process the loss.

Although several weeks have passed since my kids’ grandfather passed away, I know we aren’t quite out of the woods yet. But as each new wave comes, I will continue to support my children, listen to their concerns and shower them in love. At the end of the day, that’s all a parent can really do for their child in the aftermath of such a loss.

Getty image by Kristina Razumovskaya

Originally published: September 6, 2021
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