It is hard to watch anyone suffer, especially those we love and especially children. When children suffer, we want to make it stop.
Grief following the death of an important person in the life of a child is a particular kind of suffering that we caring adults would like to stop. We feel helpless in the face of it. We’re the adults and we’re supposed to fix things, to make them “all better.”
But, of course, death does not behave as we wish and is beyond our fixing. We feel helplessness rise inside us and wish to find words that will take away pain, thus restoring the grieving child to a state of peace and contentment. If this is not possible, we at least want to say something to make it a little better, thus avoiding saying something that makes it worse than it already is. So what can we do to help?
Perhaps the first step toward wisdom is understanding what we cannot do. We cannot take away the pain of a grieving child and we cannot make it all better. Working as a new social worker in a children’s hospital, a more experienced, wise colleague shared an enduring piece of advice. She said,
“When confronted with a situation where a child has died,
don’t feel that you need to say something to the
parents to make them feel better, because you can’t.
It’s not because you aren’t smart enough or don’t care enough.
It’s just too big.”
Later, an experienced hospital bereavement counselor said, if you find yourself racing down the hall to take some medicine to a grieving family member to help them feel better — stop and take it yourself because you’re the one who probably needs it. She said,
“They are doing what they’re supposed to be doing—
grieving in the presence of loss.”
Since we can’t make the pain go away, is there anything we can do to help a child after a death? Absolutely.
In general, grieving children need three things from adults: information, support and good role models.
Any person young or old who can wonder “why” and “how” a person died, needs information to help answer those very important, very human questions. The answers need to be honest and should correspond to the level of understanding of the child. We should always tell children the truth, but not always the whole truth—meaning not every detail and aspect of the situation with specifics which would confuse or overwhelm more than comfort. Here are the information basics a grieving child needs:
- The person died (and what dead means, if that is not understood) with some explanation as to how—the older and more curious, the more details will be needed.
- It was not the child’s fault. Children (and adults) often wonder if something they did caused the death.
- People are upset, but most will still do what is needed to take care of the child. We all learn early in life to read faces and voices, so it helps to confirm the reality that the child will be experiencing anyway. Own your reality of being upset, sad, confused but sure of your love.
Children also need support in the weeks, month, and years to come when death occurs. Here’s how caring adults can provide that support:
- Routine and structure help children feel less anxious.
- Remember the person who died. This can include talking about the person in everyday conversation, memory objects, pictures, videos, special times of remembrance, doing things the person who died liked to do and more.
- Keep an open door for more conversations and questions.
When faced with how to respond after the death of someone important, grieving children also need good role models to show them how healthy grieving looks.
- Talk about and remember the person in ways large and small. The principle is that there is no situation that you can’t find ways to talk about and cope with together.
- Encourage feeling and expressing the variety of emotions that come while still doing the things needed to care for yourself and others.
- Find ways to continue living a full life — open to new experiences and relationships.
- Take good care of yourself in body, mind and spirit, being especially kind to yourself during this vulnerable time.
There are also things to say that can be supportive and sometimes helpful. Timing and setting are important to avoid putting the child in an awkward position in front of others.
- “I’m very sorry.”
- Something true and kind about the person who died; “She was such a kind person, and wise, too.”
- Share a story—“I’ll always remember the time that your dad…”
- “I’ll be thinking about you/praying for you.”
- “I love you and will be there for you”—and then keeping that promise.
One additional phrase that can be useful with grieving children and adults is to let them know that “I’ve been thinking about you.” Again, timing and situation are important, as this is not something to say in front a group of people. “I’ve been thinking about you,” sometimes followed by “and (your person who died—mom, brother, aunt, grandfather, etc.)” validates that others think about the person who died, too, but doesn’t put the person on the spot like a question may. The grieving person can respond with a nod, a “thank you,” a story or a description of how life is going, but there is no specific expectation—any response is OK.
None of this is easy, of course. It’s often uncomfortable and even scary. We don’t want to mess up. Like other things in life, we do better when we practice. Lean into the discomfort and practice saying the words “died” and “dead” — as said gently, they are the kindest words and the easiest to understand. Also, share a memory when it strikes because you would have done so when the person was alive.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make better.
Here are things to avoid:
- Avoid speaking of the dead a taboo topic and avoid treating the death like a big secret.
- Avoid pretending that you’re not upset—when you are upset and something big has
- Avoid saying things to try to make the situation better:
- “At least he’s not suffering.” OK for the grieving person to say but not for the rest of us. The grieving person may wonder, “Why did he have to die to stop suffering?”
- “She’s in a better place.” OK for the grieving person to say but not for anyone else. The grieving person may wonder, “What was wrong with this place where we were together and she was loved?”
- “He wouldn’t want us/you to be sad.” We feel as we feel, especially in the beginning, and it’s often a complex mess of emotions: sad, angry, hurt, lonely, maybe relief, glad about the end of suffering, guilt, thankful, and so on.
Furthermore, grieving children (and adults) need two kinds of “permission”: Permission to feel as bad as they feel and permission to feel better. It’s hard to witness pain and suffering, so we often discourage grieving people from feeling as bad as they feel, but this does them no favor. Feelings ignored do not go away but will find ways to demand attention (such as sleeping problems or behavioral issues). It’s also important to feel “permission” to feel better and live life fully without being limited by various varieties of guilt.
In the big picture, we honor our dead by living full,
not unnecessarily limited, lives.
Children who want to understand and support friends who are grieving can be taught about grief and mourning. In reality, they probably already have some wisdom about this if given a chance to reflect and express their thoughts. Most children have had losses in their lives and have seen and read stories about loss, death and grief. With support, they can imagine how they would want their friends to respond to them if they experienced the death of someone important. While having these conversations, we can help children understand three “Ds” of grief and mourning:
- Denial – Many people talk about denial like it’s always a bad thing, but everybody uses denial. Denial is when something just doesn’t feel real in the beginning. We feel numb or in shock and say, “I just can’t believe it.” It’s OK to feel this way, especially in the beginning. Denial helps us to get used to the reality of the loss more gradually. We can’t feel the pain all at once.
- Distraction – It doesn’t help anyone to think about loss and grief all the time. Everyone needs a break. Part of coping is doing the things that we used to do like go to school, listen to music, go out with friends, do sports, watch movies and play games – sometimes doing these things even when we don’t feel like it.
- Deal with the grief – If we try to ignore and bury feelings before they’re ready to go, it won’t work. Grief feelings are strong. Ignoring them will just cause problems somewhere else in our lives. Sometimes we’ll need to think, talk and/or write about them or do things in memory of someone. We will need to find ways to mourn…ways that fit our grief.
In the end, our job as caring adults is not always to relieve suffering, especially when it’s suffering that is part of the experience of living — such as that felt after the death of a family member or friend. Though we can’t make it “all better,” we can help to make the grief experience not as lonely and confusing… and that, caring adults, is a very big deal indeed.
By: Greg Adams
LCSW, MSW, Author