mother and daughter walking along the shore

Understanding and supporting your child through bereavement

Posted by AK Lander | On July 25, 2018 14:57

Grief coaches give us their advice for talking to your child about death, offering support and understanding bereavement behaviours.

For a lot of children, a death in the family brings a wealth of new emotions and feelings that can be hard to process, particularly if it is their first loss.

We spoke to a number of grief coaches to find out the best advice for talking to your child about death, offering support and understanding bereavement behaviours.

Bearing the news

“When having the difficult task of bearing the news of a death to a child, allow them the safety and space to express whatever comes up for them,” says grief coach, Christi Diamond.

“There is no specific rule of thumb on how to best process. We have to be okay with their expression. Whether it's allowing them to sit in silence, just holding them or letting them know how sad you feel as well. When you allow yourself to express your own grief, cry or show emotion it actually gives children the permission to do the same.”

Understanding death

Linda Goldman, author of Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children believes the first psychological task a child faces when dealing with grief is understanding. “Children need to make sense out of death. We define death as when the body stops working. Then each family can explain death in its own way.

“We can explain unexpected deaths by reminding kids: ‘Most people live to be very, very old, but once in a while an accident, illness, or injury is so bad that doctors and hospitals can’t help, and a person’s body stops working’.

“We need to remember that children’s understanding of death changes as they develop. Let’s remember that kids perceive death differently at various childhood stages, and that their perceptions are a predictable influence of grief.”

christi diamond the healing coach

Offering support

When it comes to offering support, Linda feels children need just as much care and attention as adults do. “One of the misunderstood myths of grief and loss is that young people ‘need to move on and get over their loss’,” says Linda. “As educators, parents, and mental health professionals, we need to recognise and develop awareness of the ongoing journey of processing grief. Each child’s grief is unique, and the grief experience is unique to each individual.

"We are powerless to control the losses and catastrophic events our children may need to face, but by honouring their inner wisdom, providing mentors, and creating safe havens for expression, we can empower them to become more capable and more caring human beings."

Linda also suggests avoiding clichés that could cause confusion for a child. “Children often take language literally and need direct and simple, age-appropriate explanations.” For example, if you were to tell a child their dog was put to sleep, they could think their beloved pet could still wake up or it could even scare them into thinking they may die in their sleep. If you told them their loved one was ‘watching over’ them, they might become concerned that they are being watched 24/7.

Christi suggests drawing on your own personal experiences of dealing with death when you were a child. “Think back to how you were taught to deal with loss. It might not have been a healthy way and unfortunately we tend to pass the same patterns onto our children doing such things as telling them ‘time will heal all wounds’, or that ‘they need to be strong’ and not allowing them to feel their emotions. Or have you ever had a pet die and then your parent went to quickly replace it with another pet to make you feel better so that you fill the void of the one that just passed? If the pet meant something to that child, it is not replaceable.”

Processing feelings

Christi feels it’s crucial that a child goes through the motions of grief and doesn’t squash their feelings. “Allow them to grieve the loss and feel their feelings. Otherwise, you may be setting the precedence for a lifelong pattern that as soon as loss happens they need to look to fill the void with something else to make themselves feel better, never really learning to cope and heal.”

Getting your child involved with some of the creative parts of the funeral could also be a great outlet for their emotions, such as helping to write the inscription for their beloved’s bespoke headstone, or helping decide on flowers for the funeral.

If your child struggles to talk about their feelings, Christi suggests getting them to express themselves through play and art. “Have them draw a picture of how they feel, if they aren't able to express it verbally.”

“Another idea is to have them play in a sand box with figurines to help them express what emotions they may not know how to verbalize. Find a storybook on grief and read it to them. As you do so, stop and ask them questions like ‘have you ever felt that way?’ or ‘what do you think is going on with the main character?’ Express times when you have felt the same.

“We teach our children how to acquire things and relationships, but fall short in teaching them how to deal with loss or losing them,” says Christi. “Losing things, though painful, is a part of life. When we shelter and protect our children from the hurt of loss and grief in order to deter them from the heartache, we do them a grave injustice. Doing so lessens their ability to obtain the coping skills they need in order to work through the hardships and losses of life. They learn important self-soothing mechanisms and coping skills when they are able to work through loss at a healthy level.”

linda goldman author

Terminal illness

“In the event of an illness that may prove terminal a good approach is to keep children apprised of the facts, but not get ahead of the situation with speculation about what might happen,” says Jill Smolowe, grief coach and author of Four Funerals and a Wedding. “For example, you might say, ‘Daddy has cancer and will be given a treatment called chemo that we hope will help him get better.’ Answer their questions honestly. ‘Yes, he’s likely to lose his hair. No, I don’t know if Daddy will feel well enough to attend your football match next month.’

“But don’t project forward to speculate about whether the chemo will work or what will happen next if it doesn’t. The key is to take it one day at a time, sharing what you know, but not what you think or worry may happen.

"It's also important to make time for your children’s questions. Give them plenty of space to express their fears and concerns. Acknowledge that Daddy’s deteriorating health is scary.  And never lie. Kids have an incredible radar for when their parents are withholding information or aren't telling the truth.”

Normal vs. not normal behaviour

Grief affects everyone differently, children included. As a parent, it can be hard to recognise when your child is showing ‘normal’ signs of bereavement and ‘not normal’ behaviours.

Linda identifies normal behaviours to be as follows:

  • Imitating behaviour of the deceased
  • Wanting to “appear normal”
  • Needing to tell the story over and over again
  • Enjoying wearing or holding something of their loved one
  • Speaking of their loved one in the present tense
  • Having a tendency to worry about the health of their surviving loved ones

Although it may be a bit disconcerting, it’s also totally normal if your child:

  • Seeks medical information on death of deceased.
  • Child worries excessively about his or her own health.
  • Child sometimes appears to be unfeeling about loss.
  • Child becomes the “class clown” to get attention.
  • Child is overly concerned with caretaking.

Linda describes not normal behaviour as:

  • Outbursts of aggressiveness and rage
  • Extreme feelings of unworthiness and despair
  • Nightmares and bedwetting
  • Poor grades, impulsivity, and inability to concentrate.
  • Poor eating habits
  • Difficulties with relationships
  • Isolation
  • Acting as if nothing happened

Although children grieve differently and some behaviours may only be temporary, if you’re ever concerned about your child’s bereavement behaviour, make sure you speak with your family GP.

jill smolowe author

Being supported at school

When it comes to school, Linda recommends having protocols in place to ensure your child feels safe and supported. “A child needs to be allowed to go to a safe place outside the classroom when these unexpected, overwhelming feelings arise, without needing to explain why in front of fellow classmates.

“Children are often preoccupied with their own health and the health of loved ones. Providing a reality check - such as allowing the child to phone the surviving parent during the school day or to visit the school nurse - can reassure kids that they and their families are OK.”

With over 150 years’ experience, AK Lander boasts a long, distinguished and successful history in the memorial and masonry business. For more information contact us today.