NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Parenting through Grief

Parenting through Grief


          Of all the tasks and challenges parents have, explaining death to children is one of the most difficult. It is impossible to shield children from death. Death may enter a child’s world, sometimes at the very center by taking away a parent, a brother or sister, sometimes even threatening the child’s own life.

          Children also experience painful losses of much-loved relatives, friends, and pets. Young children are curious about death, but many adults hesitate to discuss it with them. Yet it is through such conversations that it is possible to know what children understand about death and what they understand will affect their reaction to it.

          Grief includes many feelings, some of the most common being disbelief, numbness, guilt, anger, and intense sadness. Parents may not have the answers or may not even have comforting words to offer a grieving child. However, parents can be willing to listen and to answer questions honestly even when the only possible answer is, “I don’t know.”.  Children express grief in a different way than adults.  They tend to move in and out of intense feelings, rather than sustaining high levels of one emotion for long periods of time.  When adults see a grieving child playing or laughing, they may mistakenly believe that the child is "over it".  This perception may influence how much grief support a child receives.

          Sometimes parents’ own fears about death can prevent them from openly talking to children about their loss. Children may quickly translate such a “conspiracy of silence” to mean that whatever feelings they have about death must be hidden. Children operate in a concrete world. They need simple words to explain death. Avoid using vague expressions such as “he passed away,” “she went to sleep,” or “he went to a better place.” Such expressions can be confusing to the child and create unrealistic fears of their own “going away” or “sleeping in peace:

          Preschoolers need help understanding what “dead” means, what caused the death, and what happens to the body. School-aged children generally understand the meaning of death but may need help understanding its cause and circumstances. For example, when someone dies in a car accident, children may wonder exactly what happened to the body to cause the death and if they will be injured the next time they ride in a vehicle. A simple explanation may be enough: “When John’s head hit the dashboard, it injured his brain so badly that he died right away.”

          Children may use many defenses at the time of death. Consequently, their feelings may be delayed.  Consider the explanation of one adult who was very young when his father died, “When my father died I was only four and I didn’t understand a lot about what happened. I didn’t realize I would never see him again. Then when I was in second grade, I understood he was gone forever and I was crying. The teacher asked me what the matter was and I said ‘My Daddy’s dead.’

          The ability to listen and observe are the most basic helping skills. Talk to your child about his or her feelings of grief. Be willing to ask questions, and above all be willing to listen. Your patience and availability encourage children to express their feelings. Younger children sometimes need help putting words to their feelings. “You look sad. I think you must be missing your sister very much. Is that right?”

          It is impossible to put a time limit on grief. A common misconception is that grief for adults should be over in a year and children are often expected to recover even earlier. Grief is a difficult and painful process, one that takes far longer to complete than a year. Some people never fully recover from grief, even though they are no longer consumed by it. Grief is a circular journey, one that often brings the griever back to the same place again and again. Normal grief can be thought of as spiraling outward. Even though many of the same feelings come up again and again, there is movement toward recovery.

          Children may feel hurt if they are excluded from the funeral. If children are included in family activities when a death occurs, they are more likely to develop a healthy response to death that will sustain them when a close adult can’t be there to comfort them. Explain beforehand what rituals will take place. Talk about how people might respond emotionally.  You may feel your own grief prevents you from being responsible for your children at the funeral. In that case, ask a trusted friend or relative to be with them and to take them out if they become uncomfortable or bored. Later, when the acute pain of the death is over, talk with your children about how you were and still are affected by the experience.

          The person who has died was essential to the stability of the child's world, and anger is a natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviors. Often the child will show anger towards the surviving family members. After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. The child may temporarily become more infantile; demand food, attention and cuddling; and talk baby talk.

          As we move through life, death and separation are a part of everyone’s life.  Parenting your child through their grief can be a positive step in how they react to grief in the future.


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