hen a child loses a parent, it becomes a defining moment in his life. Like adults, children react to loss in many different ways. The more adults understand what the child is going through, the better able they will be to help them navigate through the challenging days, weeks, and months of grieving that lie ahead.
Here are some guidelines and observations that can help.
Be honest with them.
It is important to be honest with children. Telling them that Dad is asleep is not only confusing, as the child may keep waiting for him to wake up, but it also fosters mistrust once the child realizes he's been lied to.
Expect different grieving at different ages.
Children grieve at levels appropriate not only to their ages, but also commensurate to their stages of emotional development. For instance, a baby or toddler's separation anxiety may be soothed in a matter of days or weeks by another family member, while an adolescent, who's had a greater proportion of experiences, bonding time, and memories, will not be as easily consoled.
Don't "erase" history.
It's quite normal for children to ask questions about the deceased parents as they grow up and start to think about it. This is healthy and helps children identify with their parent. It's reassuring for the child when you answer questions about the parent, painful though it may be, and share photos, memories, and mementos.
Tolerate some regression.
After the loss of a parent, children of all ages commonly display regressive behavior, such as a strong overdependence on the surviving parent, fear of going to school, or being whiny and clingy. Try to strike a balance between being understanding, and gradually enforcing some basic rules that help them return to their old routines, such as staying at school the whole day, or riding the schoolbus instead of having you drive them, or resuming their swimming lessons.
Don't discount symptoms.
Children, like adults, often suffer from physical ailments while they are going through the grieving process. These can range from insomnia and fatigue to eating problems and mysterious pains. Grief takes a heavy toll on health because it's so stressful. Don't ignore the child's complaints about not feeling well. Yes, it may be an excuse to skip school. But it may also be a very real condition that requires rest and some extra TLC.
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Get ready for an emotional rollercoaster.
Regardless of the child or teen's age, it's absolutely normal for her to go through a series of mood changes. She may be withdrawn one minute and in a rage the next. Allowing children to have their emotions, instead of judging or censoring them, is one of the best ways you can help them heal. If the outbursts become persistent and hurtful to others, though, don't hesitate to discourage these behaviors.
Don't oversimplify death.
With young children especially, surviving adults make the mistake of telling them that "Mommy is in a better place," or "Mommy is happy now and she's waiting for you in heaven." It can be confusing, and can even lead children to think it would be better if they were to die as soon as possible in order to be reunited with Mommy.
Don't hide your own pain.
Sometimes surviving family members hide their own pain in mourning, believing that putting on a "good face" will be helpful to the child. This confuses children, making them wonder why their grief is so personally painful while the adults around them seem unaffected. Children learn to grieve appropriately by the loving encouragement and examples set by the adults in their lives who are willing to mourn with them.
Above all, your job as an adult, even though you'll be mourning too, is to show the child that you love him unconditionally, that you are there to support him in every way possible, and that what he's going through is both difficult and normal. Grieving, he can learn, is part of life.
The Grief Survival Handbook: A Guide from Heartache to Healing
by D. Keith Cobb MD
Published by: Trafford Publishing. ©2009. http://www.thegriefsurvivalhandbook.com/
About the Author
D. Keith Cobb, M.D. is an Internal Medicine physician in practice near Savannah, Georgia. He is affiliated with SouthCoast Medical group and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine. His office serves as a teaching site for medical students and residents from Mercer University School of Medicine and The Medical College of Georgia. He is the author of The Grief Survival Handbook and has served as a course writer for ArcMesa Educators and as a contributing writer and reviewer for the medical journal Consultant. The Grief Survival Handbook received international attention when reviewed by WORLD magazine as a Top Pick read, as well as accolades from regional publications and grief counselors. Visit his website at www.DrKeithCobb.com