DEATH AND LOSS: HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH GRIEF

Carolyn Phelps, Ph.D

December 11, 2012

I thought last week’s show was a wonderful show with great information from our truly expert guests.  Here are some things to remember:  children need the facts about a dying person or a person who has died in language that is age-appropriate for them.  Parents can be helpful by:

1)       Checking out what their child thinks.

2)       Correcting and confirming facts.

3)       Helping their child develop a language for feelings, and helping them to accept their feelings. 

Often, especially younger children, need to hear the facts and discuss their feelings about their deceased loved one over and over again.  Because our ability to process information changes as we grow older, children’s grief can span many years, as they reprocess the information with new cognitive abilities throughout their life span.  Remember, our guests made the point over and over again that telling the whole truth is what is most helpful for children in terms they can understand, and half-truths create confusion. Gina Dixon made the great point that “children will hear the truth anyway, often in a less supportive environment if you don’t tell them the truth.” 

Another point that was made is that children are often more accepting about death and dying than adults. Saprina Matheny made the point that it is often our fears regarding how our children will cope with grief that are often larger than the child’s fears.  Explaining rituals associated with death in detail, so that your child knows what to expect, can be helpful in the immediate aftermath of a death, and participating in rituals can help heal.  Remember though, that smaller children will need breaks to be children and “play.”  You want to make sure that you are communicating about death in ways that don’t instill fear, that children understand all illnesses don’t end in death, and that there will always be someone around to take care of them.  Younger children often feel some guilt or responsibility for the deceased person’s death. Assuring your child that there was nothing they did that caused the death can be helpful.  This is also particularly true when a sibling has died.  What we see with sibling deaths is that most of the sympathy is bestowed upon the parents, with the siblings being left a little out in the cold.  Sometimes, children can think or fear that their parents wish that they had been the child who died, instead of their brother or sister.   There may be some guilt if the siblings had been in an argument, or if the surviving sibling had been angry at the deceased sibling before the death.  Having conversations assuring children that they are not to blame will help.  As challenging as death is, we can also view death as an occasion to discover our inner strength.  This isn’t true only for adults, but for children, as well.  As grief begins to subside, help your child think about how they want to keep the memory of their loved one alive in their heart. 

Essentia Health/St. Mary’s Grief Support Services is a wonderful resource, and have many books that are appropriate for differently aged children on dealing with traumatic loss, life threatening illness and death.  Additionally, there are individual counseling services available, family counseling services and bereavement support groups for teenagers and young people (as well as for adults).  Check them out on their website by Googling Grief Support Services, Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center. 

Have a great week, and I’ll see you on Thursday, December 13th when we will be talking about parenting toddlers.

Carolyn F. Phelps, Ph.D., L.P.

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