Liken their grief experience to throwing a 500 piece puzzle up into the air and them putting the pieces together one by one as each piece falls. As we all know from our own puzzle work, not all of the pieces fit until other ones have fallen into place. Just as it’s a grief journey for adults, it’s a long road of recovery and strength-building for children too. Here are a few warning signs to watch for in your grieving child and suggestions of way you can help them.
Some silence is to be expected as we all heal, but too much silence can be harmful. We need to continue to tell our story over and over again to heal from grief. There is no way around it. Our stories and feelings must come out to help us desensitize our hearts from all of our pain. Ask your child an open-ended question, “How are you feeling?” Listen to their response and repeat their response back to them. “Oh, you felt sad?” This reassures them that they are being heard, and it will help the conversation to unfold.
When you ask your child how they are feeling they may or may not give you a direct answer. If they are not willing to tell you how they are feeling or how much they miss they loved one who has passed, have them write a letter to their loved one and also have them write a letter to themselves back from their loved one. This will help you to understand where their hurt is the strongest and you can help reassure them in this particular area. If they are too young to write, have them draw two pictures and have them narrate each drawing.
It is hard enough to get our children to sit at the dinner table for a full meal much less to sit down and have a conversation about death or the loved one they just lost. Your child will, however, run through the kitchen when you’re cooking and have your other child on your hip and toss out a very important question, “My “friend” said you’re going to die. Are you going to die? When?” It is very important to reel them back in and have a short and very important conversation to address their fear. Don’t discount the drive-by, it’s as much as they can handle but it is THEM coming to YOU for reassurance and direction. A great answer to this is “Well, no one lives forever.”
A great follow-up to the “no one lives forever” comment is to have a conversation about what is probable vs. what is possible. “Yes, it is possible that I could die tomorrow, but it is probable that I will not. It’s also possible that we could get in the car and go to Disneyland tomorrow, but it is probable that we will not.” Giving them a negative and posBe a good listeneritive circumstance helps them to balance the reality of this perspective. You can also encourage them to “live in faith and trust in God’s plan. God always has an amazing plan for us. He just uses these life experiences to strengthen us to prepare us for the future.”
Go for a walk together (exercise always helps) and talk about plans for the future. It will help your child to think ahead and become more hopeful for the future. You can also talk about the people you would like to have involved in those activities. This will help them to realize they have many people in their life who love them and support them.
Make a point to hug your child more after the loss of a loved one. Hugging always helps. If your child isn’t as comfortable with hugging, you can wrestle, tickle or play another type of game that incorporates physical touch.
Encourage them to cry it out. Tell them where and how you cry and tell them it’s OK. “Honey, I often cry into my pillow at night or I cry when I’m in the shower.” It’s so important for your child to release his or her feelings and will feel like it’s OK to do so if you lead by example.
If your child is feeling like he or she is the only one in the world who has lost someone, it may be a good opportunity to find a model for them. Find an adult who had the same type of loss at the same age and set up a meeting for them. This will allow your child to see that you do make it through this pain and come out stronger. Some grief counseling centers will match you up with a model or you may have someone in your own life that you can ask.
Sit up and forward, leading with your heart. Look them in the eye and keep that cell phone far away. Drop everything and be there for them. You may not get this chance again for a while and you both need this moment to heal. Use phrases that encourage more sharing such as, “Can you tell me how that made you feel? What was that like? Is there anything else you’d like to share? “
Losing someone makes us realize that we are not in control. Give your child something that he or she can control. It will be so healing for them. This is where the concept of the Angel Birthday party saved our lives.
Allow your child to plan this party and let them make all of the decisions:
a. Color in a Happy Angel Birthday poster to hang up around the house- allow them to pick all of the colors- from pens to crayons to the construction paper to hanging ribbon.
b. Bake a Happy Angel Birthday Cake, light candles and sing Happy Angel Birthday loud enough for the angels to hear- Your child gets to choose flavor and frosting.
c. Make memory boxes for her keepsakes to serve as “the gifts” for the party - allow them to go to the store and pick out the box, paints and stickers.
d. Write messages on eco-friendly, helium-filled balloons and send them up to the heavens- Let them pick the colors of the balloons and color of the pen
Know that healing is a journey and be patient with yourself and your family. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. Be kind and gentle with yourself and always love yourself and your family right where you’re at today.