Helping Your Child Grieve
My son, at only four years old, has already said goodbye to his beloved cat, a family friend, his Grandpa, his Great Aunt and his Great Grandpa. The day my Dad, his Grandpa, passed away early in the morning, I thought I needed space to grieve and spent the day with other adults in our family while a family friend watched my son. In the afternoon, I suddenly had a strong desire to hold my son close, so I ran across town to pick my son up to keep him close to me. I remember feeling guilty for crying in front of him. Then, I would feel guilty for laughing at his antics when I was “supposed” to only be sad. The early days of grief were a bit confusing, because nobody could tell me how I “should” interact with my little boy. The first time he went to my parents house after the death, my little boy asked for his Grandpa and my husband responded out of grief, “You’ll never see Grandpa again.” When our sweet little boy pointed to a picture of his Grandpa on the wall, we all began to laugh. He was right, he would see his Grandpa again just not the way we were thinking of.
When helping your children navigate grief, there are no “right” answers and we’re usually coping with our own grief as well. However, I have picked up a few tips along the way between my professional experience as a therapist and trial and error in my personal life.
- Be honest in an age appropriate way. I recommend being direct, kind and age appropriate when explaining that the loved one has died and then giving your child a chance to ask questions. Of course, even the simple questions can catch us off guard and be hard to answer. I remember my son asking, “Why can’t we call Grandpa in heaven?”
- It’s ok to cry. Or laugh. Or experience whatever you are feeling, because you are modeling for your child that it’s normal and acceptable to experience a broad range of emotion. It’s not unheard of in our house to say, “I’m sad right now because I miss _____.” We will then tell our son what we are going to do to cope with that emotion. Perhaps we’re going to tell stories. Maybe we’re going to do something fun to cheer ourselves up. The bottom line is that we teach him that sadness is ok and we can survive feeling this way.
- Give your child the opportunity to express their feelings and honor the loved one. This can be done in many different ways depending on your child’s developmental stage, personality and interests. When my husband’s Grandpa died when he was in high school he played in a basketball game the next day dedicating his performance to his Grandpa. He played his heart out and they won the game, a memory he still holds dear to this day. I’ve had young clients create sand trays, paintings, poems and songs that express their feelings about a loss.
One more note, please do NOT tell your child, “They’re in a better place.” This may lead a child to wonder, what is wrong with life here? It may lead an older child to see death as an option that is less painful than the life they are living. It’s ok to share your beliefs that the loved one is in heaven, that they’re happy, they are at peace and they will no longer experience pain or sadness. Just please watch your wording around suggesting that death is better than life.
If you or your child want to process your grief and have help finding a way to make meaning and move forward, please contact us at Aspire Counseling. You can e-mail us using the form on this page or call us at 573-328-2288 and we’ll help you find the therapist who will be meet your unique needs.
*Our play therapist, Joni Antonia, currently has openings. Joni uses play therapy techniques and also has a certificate in animal assisted therapy. Joni sees clients as young as preschool age through young adulthood.
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