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Being Sensitive to a Child’s Sense of Loss

In the aftermath of loss, we often overlook the children who have also lost someone they love. Losing a spouse or parent as an adult can be difficult enough without having to manage someone else’s grief as well. Somehow, we have to keep going: performing our job, keeping the household functioning, and often trying to behave like we have everything under control when it’s anything but.

The children under our care, whether they be our own or those entrusted to us following the death of their parent, look to us for guidance. They follow our lead in expressing their grief, unless we take it upon ourselves to focus on them and the feelings they are experiencing, which they likely don’t understand. All too often, we’re overwhelmed with responsibilities and are trying to come to terms with a huge, unpleasant change in our own lives. We fail to recognize a child’s need to talk about their loss and what it means to them.

A Child Finds Comfort in the Familiar

In my book Six Healing Questions: A Gentle Path to Facing Childhood Loss of a Parent, I discuss the way a child grieves compared to an adult. Part of the difference is simply experience. By the time we are adults we’ve likely experienced grief on some kind of level, whether it was having to move away from friends, losing a job or a pet, or even the death of someone we loved dearly. We’ve developed coping skills or somehow created a process for managing our grief, though it may or may not be a healthy one.

Children, on the other hand, strive for normalcy. They’ll resume activities which make them feel safe or in control—things they did before losing a parent, to remind themselves of happier times. Still, they need to discuss their feelings too. As adults it’s our job to recognize when they need to act like a normal, happy child, and when they need to be allowed and encouraged to express their grief. If possible, they must use their words, but when they can’t find the words, they can express their grief through play or creative pursuits.

We’re Healing Facilitators

It’s our job to facilitate the healing process. Otherwise the child will adopt whatever coping skills they see us using, though they lack the necessary experience to use those coping skills effectively. All too often, the child ends up stuffing their grief down inside where it’s never resolved. They grow up feeling unwanted or not good enough, because they’re unable to replace the connection and belongingness they had with the deceased parent.

A couple of ways we can help a grieving child are to

  • encourage the child to talk about the deceased parent;
  • help them express their grief, if not in words, then through play or art; and
  • answer questions about the death in an age-appropriate manner.

Above all, we need to be present for the child while honoring and expressing our own grief. We also need to exhibit behavior which shows we’re honoring the person we lost while getting on with our lives as they would have wished.

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