Death in the Family

Coping with the death of a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences a person can go through. There are intense feelings that typically come with loss: disbelief, sadness, anger, and fear. There can also be relief (especially after a very long illness), guilt and confusion. In addition, there are new stressors: having to manage funeral services and grieving rituals, dealing with clergy, relatives, medical personnel, and other officials, dealing with the children’s immediate emotional and physical needs, in some cases, dealing with tasks usually performed by the person who passed away, and handling the effects and estate of the loved one. The whole period immediately surrounding the death of a loved one can be overwhelming for adults. However, adults who are parents must also consider the feelings of the children who are affected by the death.

Children come into contact with death in many different ways. Sometimes an elderly grandparent or other relative passes away. Sometimes, the parent of a classmate dies. Occasionally, a friend or classmate dies. Children can also experience the loss of a parent or a sibling. And many experience the loss of a beloved pet. The closer the relationship to the child, the more intense the grieving process will naturally be. This is why even the death of a pet can be devastating and traumatic for a child.

If your child has encountered death or is expressing concern about death, consider the following tips:

Your Child Grieves Differently Than You Do
Children, more than adults,  can sometimes LOOK unaffected by death. They can go on with life as usual, laughing, playing and engaging in all of their normal activities. In this way, they can fool parents into thinking that they are just fine. In most cases where kids seem perfectly happy after the death of a parent or other close relative, the death is actually so traumatic that the child dissociates from it. In other words, he or she blocks it off in the mind, storing for a time later on in life when it can be safely processed. This is a natural defense mechanism and needs to be respected. If you would like your child to begin to more fully acknowledge and deal with a significant loss, don’t try to make him or her face reality yourself – take the youngster to a professional grief counselor or other mental health professional.

Some children react to death by “acting out.” This means that their behavior deteriorates. Again, they may seem to be unaffected by the death in that they’re not crying, they’re not acting sad or depressed and they’re not wanting to talk about the death. However, they are getting into plenty of mischief at home and at school. If you notice this sort of behavioral change in your child, then professional counseling can help. Although the counselor may recommend cutting the child some slack for a short time, make sure that you do so ONLY for a short time (i.e. a couple of weeks). It is important to impose regular standards and normal structure for the child, including reasonable limits on behavior. Accept all of the child’s emotions, but not any of the child’s destructive, disrespectful or dangerous behaviors. Just because a child is distraught it is not O.K. for him or her to swear at people or destroy property or disregard the rules of the house. As parents step in to gain control of the situation, the child will actually begin to feel more in control as well. The limits can be reassuring, communicating that normal life does go on and the parents themselves are O.K. enough to do normal parenting. All of this helps the child to return to a normal baseline.

Some kids kids become very anxious after a death, suffering from bad dreams or nightmares, having trouble sleeping, developing fears of the future and phobia’s in the present and obsessing about the death, the dying process or the person who died. If your child develops intense fears that don’t clear up within a month, seek professional help. Sometimes these signs may be symptoms of a post-traumatic stress reaction that requires specialized treatment.

Children may become withdrawn after a loss. Instead of acting OUT, they act IN – becoming sad and isolated. It’s fine to allow children some quiet time, a time in which to lick their wounds and slowly recover. However, if a child is still turning away from life several months after a loss, seek professional assessment. It may be that counseling can help speed the mourning process along and help the child return to his or her life.

Very often, kids will not initiate conversations about the loss. This does not mean that they don’t need to talk. It often means they don’t know HOW to talk about it or they’re afraid of causing the parent upset. Parents, therefore, need to try to initiate talk. If the child doesn’t want to join in, then give the child space, as discussed above. However, some kids will be very happy to have the input of their parents. You can talk a little (not too much, so as not to overwhelm the child) about your own sadness and loss, but be sure to show interest in the child’s feelings. “We’re all sad and missing Grandma. I used to talk to her every day and now I really miss that. How are you doing with it? It must be hard for you too.” This sort of sentence gives the child an opening. Some kids will take the opportunity to express anger. “Why did she have to die? I want her to be here with us!” Acknowledge the child’s pain BEFORE answering questions. “Yes, we’re all upset about it. We all want her here. I know how much you miss her. No one really knows why people have to die – it’s all part of God’s plan. For some reason we don’t understand, we can’t live forever here on earth. But when the body dies, the soul still lives and in that sense we never die…..(explain death in whatever way you understand it).”

When you support your child through a grieving experience, your child learns that he or she can turn to others in times of crisis. This is a very important life lesson that heps to stress-proof your youngster.

Be Aware of Your Own Impact
Although grieving adults are often in too much pain to parent well, it is important to remember that your children are always watching you. Your reactions – at least the ones they can observe – teach them a lot about life and stress management. If you are too overwhelmed to function well, show them how you access professional help or family support. Let them know by your model, that you needn’t go through pain and deep stress alone. If you are so sad that you find yourself crying all the time, let the kids know that the tears are temporary and that they are your way of letting the sadness out of your body. If you are crying in front of them for more than two or three months, get professional help. Your intense emotion can alarm your kids and give them a feeling of helpless despair. Ideally, after the first few weeks, you can cry when the kids are in school or asleep or at other appropriate times. Keep in mind that people go to work after the death of a loved one and they are able to refrain from crying eight hours a day when they are being paid to function well. Functioning well at home is equally important as children are sensitive to and affected by their parents’ mood.

Discuss What Happened, in a Way Suitable to Their Developmental Stage
Never sidestep the topic of death, or downplay the event through statements like “you’re too young to understand”, “we can get you a new pet!” or “so & so is in Heaven so there’s nothing to be upset about” or “We’re not talking about that anymore.” Kids will pick up the sadness and grief all around them. They need information or their own imaginations will fill in the gaps in the worst ways possible (“It must have been my fault”). Explain about illness and death in ways that they can understand and relate to, but do avoid traumatic images. There is certainly no value to telling a child that Auntie Mary bled to death or little Robby got crushed under a car. Child often have very vivid imaginations and can suffer terribly from their own picture-making process. It’s enough to say that Auntie Mary had a disease and died and little Robby was in a car accident.  Answer all questions and allow your child to talk about the subject freely.

Acknowledge What They Feel
Give them an opportunity to vent out what they’re feeling, whether it’s sadness, confusion or anger. Tell them it’s okay if they want to cry, stomp their feet or shout. Assure them there’s nothing wrong in missing those who passed, and wishing they are still there.

Younger kids can be encouraged to express their emotions through creative ways. You can ask them to draw, create stories or express in play what they want to say.

Let them be irritable while grieving; this is normal. And always be there to offer your support and assurances. Tell them you’d answer all the questions they have, and that you can be approached if they don’t want to be alone.

Note: it’s normal for kids to experience nightmares or perceive “ghosts” at this time. When you notice that your child may be struggling with fear, identify the cause and address it. For instance, kids may be afraid that what happened to the one who died will also happen to them, and to other people they love. Assure them that while everyone dies eventually, it’s not likely to happen to them or you soon. Explain that in most cases, people are very old when they die, and they have lived a full and happy life.

Create a Ritual for Closure
Rituals give kids, as they do adults, a sense of “end” to something that they loss. They can be very therapeutic to a grieving child; they give kids something concrete they can refer to when they feel sad. This is better than leaving them to imagine all kinds of things they associate with the trauma of death.

Examples of rituals that parents can do with their kids include attending a memorial service, creating artwork or a “memory book” in memory of the deceased person, and praying and lighting candles for the one who passed away. Memory books can be very helpful for older kids and teens particularly when the deceased is a parent or other close family member. Such books normally contain photo’s of the person, favorite sayings, lessons learned from them, stories of happy times together, special characteristics of the person and other things that might otherwise be forgotten over time.

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