Parents write: Our children, and the two of us, have just experienced the terrible loss of a child in another family who we know well. What do you suggest?
Despite our best efforts to protect children from hardship and loss, life's tragedies come in many painful varieties. One of the most jarring is the shockingly sudden emotional assault of a close peer's accidental death. Not only can it rupture a child's sense of security, but the grieving process can trigger many issues that children may be unprepared to manage. This is further complicated by parents and caring adults experiencing their own grief. It can be confusing and even isolating for children who might be reluctant to turn to teary-eyed adults for comfort.
If you find yourself torn by an urge to guide a child through grief and navigate your own, read on for ways to find balance as you walk that tight rope between being helpful and feeling helpless:
- Expect that children's grief will be affected by many developmental, personality and external factors that impact upon how a loss is processed. Reactions can range from self-blame over a past wrongdoing aimed at the lost peer to hints of selfishness over how the death will affect their happiness. Parents may be surprised by the depth of their child's grief or what appears as a hollow acceptance of the tragedy. An inhibited teenager may wish to cover up their pain with solitary distraction while the uninhibited one may seek the continuing company of familiar peers who knew the victim. Although they may seem extreme at times, most reactions will fall within normal limits.
- A period of intense concern over the loss along with the need for frequent discussions may take place in the days or weeks following the death. Questions about life details normally ignored, concerns over safety of self and family members, or retelling of anecdotes about the lost peer may signal that they are finding a way to accommodate to the event. Convey approval as the child shares these thoughts and memories since it is critical that they keep talking and not keep their grief inside their head. Grief becomes complicated when a child worries that they should not upset parents or that their worrisome or guilty thoughts should not be spoken. Emphasize how talking out one's sadness over loss helps us feel connected and more able to resume regular life.
- A parent's grief does not have to be hidden from children. Most children can find the intellectual space to accept their parents' pain over the loss of another child. Parents can reassure the child that it is normal to go through a temporary time when tears and distress suddenly surface without warning. Emphasize that although this will be temporary they are always welcome to bring up their lost friend and not be afraid that it might sadden the parent. Selectively share your grieving thoughts so as not to burden them with worries or fears they have not yet considered. Open the door to help them consider ways they can translate their relationship with their friend into a mission or remembrance to sustain his or her memory.
- Reassure your child that each of us grieves differently and not to get trapped into judging themselves and others according to an arbitrary standard. Prepare them to anticipate that peers will be at different stages in their own grief and to find a way to accept that reality. Help them recognize that some peers will express a "need for nesting" among the group and that it will be their decision to do so or not. Help them see that at times like these many feelings and decisions are acceptable since so much of grieving is a blurry mixture of holding onto the past and moving forward to face the next day.
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Ed. note: Detailed information on parenting skills here.
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