We don’t have to talk with our kids about loss because they don’t understand death and aren’t impacted by it the way adults are, right? I mean, very young kids often think their loved one is “just sleeping and will wake up.” Older kids understand the person is gone forever, but don’t understand the gravity of the meaning of that. So why should we stress our kids out more by talking with them about the loss?
The thought that kids don’t understand and therefore aren’t impacted the way adults are is a misunderstanding. Kids don’t understand death the way adults do, but they are very much impacted by it. They have a different understanding of it and a lot of questions about it. Kids are learning from their environment and we, as adults, have to teach them.
By not talking about it, we are not only thinking we are protecting them, at a deeper level, we think we are protecting ourselves as well. It is hard enough to deal with the loss, but to deal with the feelings of a child; to see them hurt and cry; that is too much at this time. By not talking with them, we don’t have to feel the loss as strongly.
Parents do their best to shield their children from the harsh realities of the world. But as much of an effort as they put in, parents can’t always protect their children from experiencing the pain of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a beloved pet, a childhood friend, or the loss of a family member, young children are often unequipped to deal with the feelings of grief and sadness.
Kids need to know and talk about the loss. They need answers as much as we do. Some of those answers we can give, others we cannot. It is not an easy topic to discuss with a kid and depending on the age of the child, there are different age-appropriate methods and words.
The truth is, it is scary for everyone to talk about loss. Talking about it makes it real. Talking about it makes us feel our feelings. Many of us would like to pretend death didn’t happen; push it under the rug and not talk about it. The problem is, children don’t have that ability…yet. They feel their feelings, have vivid imaginations, and don’t know how to filter “deal with this” versus “hide from this”.
As scary as unknowns are for us, they are just as scary for children. Children don’t know how to express this fear and often shut down or end up having a temper tantrum because their emotions get too strong and they don’t understand their emotions yet.
You are not alone for wanting to hide from loss. You are not alone for wanting to shield your children from the pain. You are doing the best you can with what you have.
KEEP READING FOR 5 WAYS YOU CAN HELP YOUR CHILD WITH LOSS
The biggest downside to not talking with your children about the loss is the impact it has on them. Children are learning from their environment. When they learn not to talk about loss, they learn not to talk about loss. Therefore, as they grow, they will struggle to talk about loss and may even try to hide from it or pretend it doesn’t exist.
There is also a downside to us when we don’t talk about loss. Feelings and memories get stored in the body as well as the mind. Have you heard of phantom limb pain? Phantom limb pain is when a part of the body which you do not have anymore hurts…but since you don’t have that body part, it shouldn’t hurt. This is an example of how memories get stored in the body.
When we don’t talk about loss, we may develop physical problems (high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, etc) as a result of emotions being stored in the body.
At the very least, we may be overly sensitive, numb, or avoidant of loss. All three of these come with their own complications. When we are overly sensitive, we cry at the drop of a hat. Others may notice this and may not want to share sensitive things with us so they don’t “upset” us more.
When we are numb, people may think we are “strong” when in fact, we’re not feeling at all. All emotion is shut off – good, bad, happy, sad. We don’t feel anything. We need our feelings to protect us. Each emotion has a purpose.
When we are avoidant, it can make people feel frustrated because we don’t seem to care and denial doesn’t negate the truth. Some things have to be dealt with.
I WANT TO HELP MY CHILD GET THROUGH LOSS, BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO ACCEPT IT MYSELF
Right now you may be nervous about your own feelings or what to say to your child. You may even be afraid of breaking down yourself. What is wrong with crying when someone passes on? Crying is a release. Crying lets the emotions out so they do not cause further internal damage (gastrointestinal, high blood pressure, etc).
Being nervous about your own feelings is about you; not about your child. When you are afraid to show emotion, what are you teaching your child? Your child has no problem crying, laughing, screaming or doing anything else to show their feelings. Yes, there is a time and place for everything and screaming in the middle of an office building is not the right time. We need to teach our children when to feel feelings. We need to teach them how to feel feelings. We need to teach them the appropriate ways to deal with feelings in different situations. We don’t need to teach them not to feel feelings.
Based on how you were brought up, there may be some residual beliefs about death, feelings, and sharing. Were those lessons you learned early on helpful for you? Did they teach you what you wanted and needed to know to be a healthy adult? If so, use those lessons for your children. If not, it’s never too late to learn new lessons and teach your kids how you wish you were taught.
Living with a feeling of fear or uncertainty with how to talk to your children is not helping anyone. It can be a very lonely feeling and it can cause ongoing problems for you and for your children.
WHAT DO I TELL MY CHILD? HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Although you feel afraid and unsure right now, you have the ability to take control and help your child through this difficult time. You are going through a bunch of emotions and may be having difficulty sorting them out. Your child is as well. The problem is they are learning from their environment. They are learning from you. They don’t know what their feelings “mean” yet.
What to and how much to tell your child is a very difficult question. Each child is different – whether in chronological age or developmental age. How you share and what you share with one 12 year old may be different than how and what you share with another 12 year old.
When you choose to not let grief and loss hurt your child ongoing, you give them the power to work through it and come out stronger on the other side. You give them the opportunity to live life free from the fears and stigmas. You teach them about life in a way that will never be forgotten and always be there to aid them no matter what losses they face throughout the rest of their lives.
5 WAYS YOU CAN HELP YOUR CHILD WITH LOSS
Right now you are unsure how to handle this. You don’t know if you have the ability. It’s hard enough to deal with the loss yourself, but to help another person through it at the same time seems impossible.
The key to helping them through it is understanding yourself. If you understand what emotions you have and what thoughts you have, you will be able to stay focused on them. There may be a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the loss, but if you understand what feelings and thoughts YOU have about the loss and the entire experience, you have all you need to help them through.
This may or may not be an easy feat for you. You may not understand your emotions either, depending on how you grew up. If this is the case, it may be helpful to seek additional support from a therapist to aid your own journey.
Making the decision to help your child through it is not likely a difficult decision. The difficulty lies in how to help them. When you make the decision to help them through their feelings of loss, you put control back in your hands and their hands.
Take a look at these 5 ways you can help your child with loss
1. Share what they can handle
Children have very big imaginations. They can often imagine a scenario that is far scarier than the current reality. While you may think speaking openly to children about a pet or loved one’s illness and impending death will cause anxiety, very often not speaking with them will cause them even more. They may not understand their anxiety, and later in life all they may remember is feeling anxious and angry at the unknowns. But odds are they will remember it.
Just be sure to share facts and information that are age-appropriate. For instance, a 12-year old may understand the concept of hospice care while a 5-year old may not. With younger children, share the simple essentials of death and dying.
It can be helpful to turn to resources such as books (see below), friends and family, support groups, or other places that will provide you with appropriate information if you are not sure what they can handle. Just make sure you know your child. Not all 12 year olds are the same developmentally.
2. Use Children’s Books
It can be difficult finding just the right words to explain death and dying to a young child. At these times, children’s books about illness, dying and bereavement can be a tremendous help and can guide you in having developmentally appropriate conversations with young people.
Turn to your friends, family, support group, or even the internet to find helpful books. Many books have reviews and “stars” to help guide you to books that are most helpful to other people.
If your child is old enough to read the books on their own, let them. Then talk to them about it. Or read it with them. And talk to them about it. The purpose here is no matter how they get the information from the books, don’t leave it there. Talk to them. Let them tell you what they understood from the book. Let them tell you what their experience is and how it is the same (or different) from the books.
3. Encourage Their Honest Feelings
Loss can cause people of all ages to completely shut down emotionally. Emotional numbness is a form of denial. While it’s okay for a child to take some space after the initial loss, you will need to help them feel their feelings about it. Unexpressed emotions can cause mental and physical issues in the future.
This is a difficult piece of the puzzle. Many adults and older children process things through without too much difficulty. They may not even need too much prompting or discussion. They may say “I’m alright” and honestly may be; it may not be an issue for them. So how do you tell if your child is being honest or has shut down? Easy answer: What do they do in other stressful situations?
We do not want to cause them to feel something they don’t. If they say they are alright and we’re telling them in essence that they shouldn’t be, they’ll end up second guessing their feelings and thoughts. Encouraging honest feelings can be a fine line, but if you know your child and how they handle different types of situations, you’ll be able to gauge their answer about this better.
4. Accept their Honest Feelings
Like adults, kids may go through a gamut of emotions from anger to sadness, guilt to shame. It’s natural and okay for your child to feel any emotion they may have. Let them know this and support them at every step of their grieving process.
Feeling feelings is not an easy thing for anyone to do. Nobody likes feeling upset. It is easier to soothe and make it go away than to sit with and feel the feelings. Children do not know how to express their feelings yet. They are still learning. Teach them how to feel their feelings and whatever feeling they have at that moment is appropriate. Teach them the difference between feeling their feelings and acting their feelings.
If you are uncomfortable feeling feelings, your child will sense that from you and often won’t want to upset you more. They may tell you they are fine in order to not make you feel worse. It is important for you to accept your own feelings as well. Children are very perceptive. As they are learning their world, they take in a lot of non-verbals that we, as adults, miss.
5. Seek Help
Your child may benefit from speaking with a professional therapist who can offer tools and coping strategies. You’ll want to look for someone who’s not only qualified but who both you and your child will feel comfortable working with.
If your child needs more than you can give, it is not a failure on your part. We all have our strengths and sometimes when we are going through something ourselves, it just becomes too much to try to help someone else as well. Other times due to other circumstances we just don’t have the tools to really help someone else, especially a child who sees the world differently. By seeking help for yourself and your child, you are doing them (and yourself) a favor. You are stronger for accepting help than pretending it’s not necessary.
Helping your child through loss is not an easy task. It is hard enough to get yourself through it. I know you want the best for your child and want them to grow up feeling safe and confident in themselves.
Whereas I do not work with children, please contact me with any questions. I will be happy to discuss options with you and help you find someone who would be a good fit for your child, taking that stress off you.
I can be reached at 941-462-4807. If it is easier to email, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org