Helping Children Grieve

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“Mommy, I want to arrest God for taking Daddy!” Words like this
are expressed by children daily. Every year roughly 2.3 million
people die in the United States; 16,000 are children. Even more
children are touched by the loss of significant loved ones in their
lives — parents, grandparents, teachers, even friends.

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The harsh reality is that, sooner or later, you may have to deal
with children and grief. The statistics don’t play favorites.
Generally, I’ve found that children can be overlooked in the course
of bereavement. Usually, it’s unintentional; the adults may just be
caught up in their own grieving process. However, if adults are
supportive of children during this time, the children will usually
experience a healthy grieving process. I’ve worked as a grief
counselor for over eight years. During that time, I’ve discovered
helpful tips for working with grieving children.

CHILDREN’S NEEDS

Depending on where children are developmentally, they’ll
experience grief differently. It’s almost as if they’re wearing
different “grieving lenses.” For example, preschool children
realize the loss of the loved one in the sense that the loved one
has gone away and isn’t coming back. They’re also influenced by the
adult’s explanation of what happened.

Sometimes preschoolers view death as magic, hoping that one day
the person will reappear. On the other hand, a young school-age
child knows that death is permanent and fears it. An older
school-age child who experiences the death of a loved one will
acknowledge the importance of it and will look for ways to deal
with the grief constructively or destructively.

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TALKING ABOUT DEATH

As much as parents want to protect children from feeling pain,
it’s worse to encourage them to have a magical idea about death.
This can be more harmful to them in years to come.

Preparing children for death

In some instances, you may know that someone close to the
children will soon die. This gives you time to prepare the
children. You may also want them to participate in the “deathing”
process by offering comfort and support to the loved one. The first
step is to tell the children about the illness and the potential
outcome. Ideally, the children’s parent(s) should tell them in a
familiar, comfortable setting.

It’s a good idea to hold children while you talk with them about
the imminent death. One woman told her children that she had
cancer. She explained that for a while the children might see her
get very sick. Although the doctors would try to make her better,
no one knew what would happen. She might have to sleep a lot, but
that wouldn’t mean that she didn’t still love her children.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to explain the treatment and invent ways
for children to be part of the process. In one case, a child’s role
was to bring his grandfather ice cubes. In that way, the child was
able to comfort his grandfather. Don’t use colorful words such as
passing away, sleeping, or going on a trip. These words may cause
the child to be fearful and anxious about these activities in the
future.

Breaking the news

The surviving parent or parents should find a comfortable place
to talk to the children. While holding them, tell them that the
person has died. Parents commonly ask, “When someone dies in the
middle of the night, should I wake my child?” My advice is to wait
until they awaken to tell them. Typically, children react by
crying. Then, they’ll usually want a diversion, such as going
outside to play. Sometime later, they’ll probably cry again.
Provide answers to their questions with comfort, support, and
touch.

Answering questions — Children may ask a
variety of questions. Gentle honesty is critical. I’ve provided the
more commonly asked questions and the answers I typically give.

Q: Was she in pain when she died?
A: She had special medicine, so she didn’t feel
any pain.

Q: Why couldn’t I and/or the doctors help her
get better?
A: Her body wasn’t working and couldn’t be
fixed.

Q: Why did she die?
A: She got sick, and they couldn’t fix her body
any more. Q: Where is she now? A: Where do you think she is? (The
child will usually answer heaven. Have the child elaborate on
heaven.)

Q: What’s she doing and what does she look
like?
A: No one really knows for sure, but she probably
looks like your memory of her before her illness. Children may
exhibit other behaviors as a natural part of the grieving process.
Children may want to stay connected with the deceased person by
keeping a memento. For example, one young child kept her mother’s
pillow. Children also may want to remember their loved one by
looking at pictures and home videos. They may want to visit the
cemetery or the place where the person died. Additionally, they may
want to act like a ghost because it fits their perception of what
the deceased person is experiencing now.

WAKES AND FUNERALS

During the first few days following the death of a loved one,
children tend to feel isolated. Their world has been interrupted,
their normal routine disturbed. At this point, children, like
adults, need to grieve. Attending a wake and/or funeral is a
significant step in the grieving process. While you can’t and
shouldn’t force children to attend a wake or funeral, encourage
them to go. If children know what to expect at the funeral home and
at the funeral service, the experience won’t seem as frightening.
Smaller children can be cared for by a trusted adult, such as you,
particularly if the parents are directly involved with the wake or
funeral.

You can “keep an eye” on the children as well as offer love and
support. Some funeral homes have a playroom for children. If not,
create a space where the children can play quietly. Bring some of
the children’s favorite playthings. Typically, children want to
stay at the funeral home only for a short time, so arrange for
someone to take them home early. With older children, invite their
“circle of friends” to attend. It’s especially comforting to have
their best friend with them during this time. At times, children
may ask to participate in the family’s funeral planning. Include
children in these activities. There are many ways they can
participate, such as enclosing a treasured memento, a personal
drawing, or a letter in the casket. Older children may want to read
at a funeral or even offer a few words of their own.

FOLLOW-UP

This is probably the most difficult part of helping children
grieve. After the funeral is over and adults return to their normal
routine, children are still grieving. In fact, it usually takes
about four years for children — and adults — to fully work
through the grieving process. In the death of a parent,
grandparent, or sibling, the normal routine is now uneven and may
be completely different. The children may not feel comfortable
expressing feelings to the remaining parent, grandparent, or other
siblings because each is grieving in his or her own way. This is
where you can play an important role in the healing process.

Provide the grieving children with a safe place to express all
the diverse emotions they’re experiencing. Of course as in all
emotional traumas, extended and obsessive bouts of anger or
depression need exploration by a professional counselor. You can
find professional support from family therapists who specialize in
grief counseling, hospice services that offer grieving support
groups, or counseling centers that have programs for grieving
children. Through the years, many children have shared their
grieving experiences and stories with me. Regardless of their
background, kids share one consistent message — their loved ones
are now in a place where pain, sadness, and suffering are gone, and
only happiness and goodness remain. And as I remember my
significant loved ones who’ve died, I find great comfort and hope
in that message. Anthony M. Sirianni is a priest and hospital
chaplain in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

EXPRESSING FEELINGS

Grieving children may express anger, fear, frustration, sadness,
and other feelings. To help children express their emotions, use
children’s playthings, such as crayons, paint, music, puppets, and
clay. I’ve had children draw a series of pictures about themselves
and the deceased person. In this example, the pictures are about a
deceased friend, but these instructions can be used for any
deceased loved one.

  1. “Draw a picture of you and your friend before your friend
    died.”
  2. “Draw a picture of where your friend is now.”

3. “Thinking about where your friend is now, draw a picture of
yourself.” As the children are drawing, watch their expressions and
actions. For example, do they seem tense? Are they angry? Are they
crying? Then observe the pictures. Are the pictures of sad faces?
Do the colors seem to represent anger? After this activity,
encourage children to present their drawings to the family of the
deceased person. The children usually seem happy to make this
comforting connection with the family. If children are angry, use
these tips to help them deal with their anger:

  • Give kids a physical outlet such as sports.
  • Be with them as they experience their anger.
  • Don’t excuse bad behavior. Say, “I understand you’re angry
    because your father died; I’m angry too, but your behavior has to
    change. Let’s talk about what’s really bothering you.”
  • Encourage children to talk about the person. If the situation
    id more than you can handle, seek professional help — perhaps for
    the entire family.

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