Helping a child cope with death, grief and loss is hard. We want to protect our children from the pain and heartache of losing a cherished loved one. But the inevitability of death is more powerful than our need to protect our children. When death and loss come into our children’s lives there are things you can do to help them cope.
Helping a Child Cope With Death
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Three great-grandparents passed away, a beloved pet dog lost her life, a grandmother battled cancer, I battled a heart condition, and a new baby brother arrived that turned life upside-down with his intense PTSD and special needs… All of this death, loss and grief happened to my son before he was finished Kindergarten.
At 3 years old we found our son curled up on the stairs sobbing because he understood that parents could die and that somewhere in the world there were children right now losing their parents.
And somewhere in this world right now a child was dying.
The enormity of this realization about the finality and inevitably of death hit him hard.
As adults we struggle with the concepts of death and the finality of our lives. There is only one way out of this life and we all have to take that door at some point.
It’s hard for an adult to face these thoughts.
Coming to this realization at only 3 years old was devastating.
It took time but we did help our son come to a sense of peace and acceptance around death, grief and loss. Here are some of our tips that worked for our family.
ART & WRITING
Art is a wonderful venue for exploring feelings. Ask the child to draw or create (clay and play dough are wonderful) whatever they want. Let them take the lead and don’t push them at first. Over time you can gently guide them into exploring their thoughts and feelings through the medium. One prompt I have used is to ask if they want to draw a picture for the person they have lost. If the person has passed you can do a special ritual to “send” the picture to the person. Our favourite is to burn the picture and imagine the smoke is sending it to our beloved.
For older kids encourage them to write out and journal their thoughts. Or write a letter to a loved one. Similar to the drawings you can do a special burning ritual to send the letter to your loved one or use something like a Fairy Jar.
Music is another fantastic funnel for emotions. We really enjoyed combining music and art. Have the child pick a song, or chose a song that has some special meaning, then has the child to paint, draw or write while listening to the music.
Structure and routine can help, or it can hurt. If the person was a part of your daily lives and routines it can be extremely painful to try and continue that routine without them. In those situations changing things up and doing things differently can help. If the loss is not something that impacts daily routines the routines can be soothing and comforting. Familiar.
Books that relate to the child and help them develop context around the loss can be very helpful. It can also provide them with the vocabulary they need to move through the grief process, communicate their feelings and needs, and understand how to find ways to cope. I highly recommend reading these books as well, as it can really open the door for some profound discussions and moments of connection.
Create photobooks. We have found it really helpful to create a book for our children featuring pictures of our child with their treasured people. We keep this book in their bedroom so they can look at it any time.
Exercise is so important. When you are feeling depressed or upset the last thing you may want to do is get moving, but it really will help you and your child. Get them running and playing. Make it a part of your daily schedule.
CREATE A SACRED PLACE
Create your own small memorial by planting tree. This is one of our favourite ways of celebrating a life. At the base of the tree we will often bury small tokens like a piece of art the child has created. You could also plant flowers or craft something to hang in a special place. Be creative and let your child have a place to express themselves.
Simply be there with your child. Talk if they want to talk. No matter what time it is, or what is going on. Drop everything to be there in those moments. I have found hard topics are often easier to talk about while doing things like gardening, doing puzzles, riding in the car. But if they don’t want to talk just be there with them. Help them to not feel alone in their pain.
Bring in help. If you are struggling too much or if your child simply seems to want to talk to someone else, that’s OK. Sometimes talking to the other parent, or a grandparent or other trusted person is what the child needs. Embrace this and build a safe support network for your child. Helping a child cope with death is not something you need to do alone.
Therapy can be a blessing if you or your child seem to be struggling more than what you feel is normal. Getting extra help is especially important if you notice any self harm or significant behavioural issues. There are many options available such as grief counselors, therapists, psychologists and support groups. There are many grief support programs that are free of charge and grief support groups are in almost every community. Some of these resources are free and programs are usually available for all ages.
If your children are older and can verbalize their needs, ask them what they want. Maybe they need comfort food, or a distraction, or quiet time, or to kick/yell/punch (we have a punching bag just for this purpose but a pillow or something similar can also work). Let your child lead, and be their safe place to ask for whatever it is that they need.
Dealing with grief is incredibly hard for everyone. Helping our children find ways to cope and grow through the experience can be especially hard when you yourself are struggling. Remember it is OK to not be OK and you can ask for help. Look into therapy for yourself during this time to provide your own self care and ensure you can be the anchor your child needs during this time.
For all of you struggling, I hope you are able to find love and peace and blessings through the pain.