Written by Dr. Sidney Langston
Sarah and Suzanne, twin sisters, were five years old when their mother was suddenly taken ill and rushed to the hospital by ambulance in the middle of the night. When their mother tucked them in bed and kissed them good night earlier that evening, they had no idea it would be the last time they would see her alive. "Because of their age" and because their father was devastated by the loss of his mate, it was decided that the girls would not attend the funeral. They were told only: "mama went away." It took Sarah and Suzanne 18 months to figure out that their mother was dead, that she had not abandoned the family. The tragedy of this situation is that the adults did not understand that children experience grief just as they do.
Much has been written about the grieving process, and generally the focus is on encouraging adults and adolescents to grieve their losses. It is my opinion, as a therapist, that we must not overlook the grieving needs of children. It is important to remember that children are people too and, like adults, their feelings run very deep. In their best interests, these feelings must not be overlooked or minimized.
Just as adults need to work through the grieving process, so do children. It is important to give a grieving child the same care and sensitivity you would like to receive from others.
Helping Children Grieve
You can assist children in grieving their loses by implementing the following suggestions.
Openly and honestly discuss what death is. Use the proper terms in your discussion such as "death," or "died," rather than "gone away" or "sleeping."
Help children understand that loss brings pain that cannot be disregarded. No one wants to feel the loneliness, vulnerability, insecurity and unmet longings caused by loss, but ignoring the pain won't make it go away.
Help children understand unfamiliar behavior they see in the adults around them. If an honest explanation is not given, children tend to make up their own reasons for the behavior.
Let your children see you cry, express anger, frustration, etc. and allow them to express their feelings. Make certain they know your feelings are not against them, but are in response to your loss. Your expression of emotion will free the children to express their own feelings. Never tell them it is not appropriate to cry. Allow the tears. They are healing. It is also important to share how you've been comforted and, in turn, to comfort them.
Let children know that you love them very much, that their presence brings much comfort to you, and that your presence can bring comfort to them. Give many expressions of love, appropriate touching, and holding. Plan special moments and activities alone with them. Help them to reinvest in love and learn it is safe to love again.
Explain the circumstances of the loss to your children in an age-appropriate manner. Give them the freedom to talk about what happened. Let them ask questions, and answer them as honestly as possible.
Assure them that the loss is not their fault. Make certain they don't have any false assumptions about guilt or blame.
Give the children hope for the future which will help balance the harshness and sadness of the loss. Help them realize that life will go on and that they can experience joy and peace again. They need to understand that life will be different because of the loss, but different doesn't have to mean bad.
Do not bear resentment against children who don't seem to be hurting. It will probably be easier for them to get back to "life as usual" than it is for you, but this does not mean that they don't care and that they don't hurt.
In the event these interventions fail to bring relief to the grief, arrange for the children to see a counselor, pastor or physician who is professionally trained in assisting people to resolve their grief.
Remember that all grief is unique because each life is unique. It usually takes from one to two years to work through significant losses. Don't rush the process. Allow each child to work through their own grief at their own pace.
Children are resilient and most of them can live through anything—as long as they are told the truth and allowed to share with loved ones their natural feelings of grief and loss.
Jackson, Terri. (1992.) How can I live with my loss? Grand Rapids: Thomas Nelson Pub.
Kuhning, Delores. (1987). Helping people through grief. Minneapolis: Bethany House Pub.
Langold, Christine Harder. (1988). Someone I love died. Elgin, IL: Chariot Books.
Long, Jim. (1986). How could God let this happen? Wheaten, IL: Tyndale House.
Mumford, Amy Ross. (1993). Love away my hurt. Denver, CO: Current Books.
Sheets, Tim. (1991). Help for people in pain. Upper Darby, PA: BCM Publishers.
Copyright 1993, El Rophe Center, Inc.