By Nicole Rhodes
As soon as you begin your parenting journey, however the start - positive pregnancy test, fertility treatments, adoption - your mind is filled with questions and lists of things to learn. You buy the books, download the apps, and rely on professionals to help guide you. Soon, you soon realize that the learning never really stops. Questions like ...
How do I install a car seat?
Is my child latched correctly?
When does a child start solids?
Is [this bodily fluid] the right color?
… are pretty common Google searches. Among the Google searches you might have never thought to be part of your story, though, are ones about supporting kids who grieve a death. Things like …
How do I tell my child that their friend died?
Is it okay to bring a child to a funeral?
Do I tell my daughter her goldfish died?
… can be much harder to experience (!) and search the web for answers. The unfortunate thing is that this is the reality for so many kids across the US - it’s estimated that 1 in 14 kids nationwide will grieve the death of a parent or sibling before they are 18 (1 in 12 in Missouri). Can you imagine the number of kids grieving a death of any kind - a grandparent, friend, animal (a big deal!) - before they are 18? That’s a lot of kids impacted by death! As a parent or other caregiver, you’re in a tough spot … you want to do the best for your child, but you also want to hide under the blanket and pretend the situation doesn’t exist. While temporarily helpful, we know the blanket won’t shield you from *all* of the hard stuff that’s to come. So, while you’re under the blanket - physically or metaphorically - here are 10 tips/things for you to know about parenting grieving kids.
First and foremost, know that kids do grieve. It’s easy to overlook their needs or think “they are over it” when they want to play five minutes after learning heartbreaking news. Their grief behaviors and emotions can be confusing and inconsistent, but grief in general is confusing and inconsistent. Acknowledging that what your child is experiencing is real can do major things for each of you.
Tell the truth.
Telling the truth might be the most difficult tip to execute. The truth can be hard to hear as adults and the thought of communicating it to little bodies is even more difficult. After all, who wants to tell their child that someone died, especially by tragic causes or in unfortunate situations? However, by telling the truth, you are planting seeds of trust and modeling that you can talk about hard things. Imagine the confusion and betrayal if your child learns the reality of a situation from someone who isn’t you. And sometimes, the stories children create in their head can be worse than the events that actually happened. Telling the truth is a process - one that can start with big picture details and end with finer points. It’s a process that can include “I don’t know” or “who can we ask about this?” It’s a process that you are not ultimately not expected to be an expert in - don’t hesitate to ask for help in this area.
Grief responses vary in nearly all ways … child-to-child, day-to-day, intensity, duration, etc. Just as your children may vary in their personalities, their responses to a death may vary, too. Many children ask tons of questions while others are satisfied with simple answers. Some teens want people to take notice of their situation while others want to blend in. What’s difficult about grief responses is that there’s a whole continuum of normal and healthy. As an example, the presence or lack of tears isn’t always a clear picture of how someone is functioning. View your child’s responses from their baseline. Never be afraid to ask your child’s pediatrician or a local expert for help with behaviors and emotions you are observing.
They will ask questions. Lots of them.
Think about everyday, non-grief situations with your child. They ask a lot of questions, right? Things like
Why is the sky blue?
Can I have ice cream for dinner?
Are we there yet?
And sometimes (a lot of the times), they ask the same question again. And again. The same is true for death and grief, especially for younger kids. They might ask you a question that you have calmly and appropriately answered 10+ times just this week. This is okay, normal, and to be expected. In the same way that you might be trying to make sense of a death yourself, your child is, too. Plus, they are observing how you answer the question - that’s all part of their learning! There is nothing wrong with you or your child if they ask the same question repeatedly.
They’re going to be worried about you.
If the person who died was a parent or caregiver for the child, it’s normal for the child to now be worried about your health. It’s also SO normal to want to assure the child that nothing will ever happen to you. Unfortunately, we aren’t the holders of the crystal ball and don’t know this to be fact. Do your best to avoid saying things like “nothing will ever happen to me.” Instead, convey the things you are doing to stay healthy. To calm worries you might have, get a physical or have conversations with people who would care for your child if you were to get sick and/or die. There’s no harm in having these conversations early.
Talk about it.
One of the best gifts you can offer your child is the ability to talk freely about their feelings and their grief. Normalizing talking about emotions and grief by sharing your emotions, worries, memories, joys, and more. If this is new to you, start with things that are easier to talk about and slowly include more vulnerable topics. This modeling allows children to learn that it’s okay to feel and that feelings are complex and can change. It also opens the door for future “tough” conversations that are sure to come as your children get older, grief-related or not.
When someone dies, especially suddenly, kids can be easily overlooked. Do your best to include your children in any ritual preparation you may do. In general, it is okay for children to participate in funerals, memorials, or other public mourning events. Afterwards, continue to invite your children to be a part of decisions about possessions or ways to remember the deceased in everyday life.
Grief continues throughout their life.
Kids continue to grieve deaths throughout their lives, as do you. Expect periods of calm and periods of more intense grief. Major milestones such as graduations, earning a license, or the start of a first job are traditional “triggers.” With that said, don’t underestimate the impact of more “normal’ events like beloved sports teams celebrating big wins or friends experiencing similar losses. This “re-grieving” process is even more likely if kids learn new information about the death as they get older. Use these re-grieving moments and triggers to have healthy conversations about grief.
Impossible to separate development vs. grief.
A common question asked about grieving kids is “how do I know what’s grief and what is typical _____ year-old behavior?” The hard answer is that it is impossible to separate what’s being a child and what’s grief. What we know to be true, though, is that kids of all ages and experiences need opportunities to learn about emotions and coping skills, space to feel, and boundaries to learn acceptable behavior.
Resources are available to you.
We’ve all heard that parenting takes a village. It can also take a library, a good podcast app, and professionals trained in supporting grieving kids and their parents. Here’s a few things that may be helpful for you as you navigate life with your grieving child:
Podcasts: Grief Out Loud
Talk to you soon!
Additional Counseling Services at Marble Wellness
Counseling services designed to help set you on a path of living a more fulfilled, calm, and happy life. We specialize in anxiety, depression, grief, chronic illness, therapy for men, couples, and maternal overwhelm. We can also help new moms with various postpartum concerns, moms in the thick of parenting, and moms with teens. We can also chat from wherever you are in the state with online therapy in Missouri and online therapy in Illinois. No matter where you are in your journey, we would love to support you.