How do you console a child who is reeling from the death of a friend or family member? How can you reassure a child who has had his sense of safety and security destroyed by disaster? How can you help a child work thorough grief?
The Oklahoma tornado devastated schools and claimed the lives of adults and children. A few days later, a fatal landslide at Lilydale Regional Park claimed the lives of two children in grade four.
Grief is especially heart-wrenching when children are involved. Even children who are not directly impacted can experience grief. Children can be traumatized by the news. Children can suddenly fear their own death, or the death of their parents. Children can abruptly realize that their parents are not all-powerful Gods who can protect them from every possible disaster.
As parents, caring adults, and teachers, we all need to know how to help children through grief. Grief can come from a death, but can also be triggered by other losses, such as a divorce, a move, or changing schools. Losing a pet, a friend, or something treasured can also produce grief. Hearing about disasters, even if they are far away, can cause grief as children lose their sense of security and safety.
My son was only four when his father died suddenly at the age of thirty-three, so I have dealt with grief first-hand. I have also devoted the last two decades to studying how to proactively recover from grief more quickly.
Here are 5 steps to helping a child through grief:
1. TELL THE TRUTH. Don’t say that “Grandma is sleeping” if the truth is that she is dead. That will only make the child afraid of falling asleep. When you tell the truth, you create safety, which is especially precious when the child has had the very foundation of his world rocked to the core.
3. ENCOURAGE SELF-EXPRESSION. Art, play, drama, and drawing are helpful ways to express and release feelings. Be a safe place for all the feelings that may arise (for example, don’t say “Don’t feel bad” or “Don’t feel sad.”) Expressing feelings allows them to be safely vented and released.
4. SAY GOOD-BYE. It’s important to say good-bye to people, places, pets, and things. Allow a space for mourning the loss, and take a moment to say goodbye. For example, when you move, go room to room in the house with your child and say “thank you” to each room for the fond memories. This creates closure. Saying good-bye allows the child to celebrate and embrace the new home, new pet, or new school.
5. CONSTRUCTIVE ACTION. Take some positive action: plant a tree, draw a picture, say a prayer, or light a candle. Involve children in making a home-made card to give to the bereaved family with some home-made cookies. Older children benefit from doing something positive to honor the loss, such as volunteering at a senior center, or doing a car wash for charity.
These five steps will help you help children through grief. As we are all little children inside, I encourage adults to use these five steps, as well.