“Be honest and clear”: How to help your children process grief

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Our children’s first experience of grief can be quite confronting for us as adults to witness. We want to shield them from the pain and the sadness and protect them from the harsher realities of life.

Unfortunately, though, grief is an unavoidable part of life, and our role as parents is to try to help our children make sense of the things that we may not even understand ourselves.

Although our own experiences will colour the lens we look through, our kids will carve their own path through it. And it won’t necessarily be the way we might expect them to, either. 

Children process grief differently than adults and that can be a blessing in disguise. They can move through it more quickly or appear not to be as deeply affected at times, and they are much better at living in the moment than we are. So, while there can absolutely be periods of great distress and pain, they can also appear to bounce back and join the outside world more quickly than we can.

For some children, making sense of the finality of death can be challenging. They might ask repeatedly when their loved one is going to return. They may have a steady stream of questions about death, what it means and what has happened. If you are grieving yourself, this can be incredibly difficult to have to answer over and over, and it can be useful to have a prepared answer ready to go.

Some children may become withdrawn and not want to talk about it at all – and that is okay too. When this happens, try to go at their pace and help them feel safe about opening up when they’re ready.

In either case, it’s important to be honest and clear with your child about what has happened. What should you not say to a grieving child? Avoid saying things like their loved one has gone away on a holiday or has gone to sleep, it can create confusion and distress for a child. It can also conjure up fears and anxiety about what might happen when they go to sleep or if a loved one has a holiday coming up.

Using language that makes sense to them, at their current age and stage of development is imperative to helping them to process their loss. It’s also important to note that this generally isn’t a one-conversation thing. Depending on the child, the conversation about death and grief can continue over many days, weeks, months or years. 

Try not to push them into talking about it if they’re not ready to but let them feel their way through it. Just knowing that you’re there to catch them if they fall is comfort enough. 

As they grow and mature and begin to make sense of what the loss means in their lives, the conversation will change too. It’s also important to remember that you don’t always have to have the answers. If your child asks you something that you’re unsure about, it’s okay to tell them that. Ask them what they think, or how they feel about it and provide support and validation that way.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve and that applies to children too. What they do need is the safety and security of knowing that whatever they are feeling is okay and that you will be there to love and support them no matter what. 

Encouraging them to explore their feelings, ensuring that their routines remain as regular as possible and showing them that grief is a natural part of life is how we lay the foundations for healthy outcomes when faced with these inevitable life-changing events.

If this story has raised any issues for you, contact Griefline at 1300 845 745

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