If a sibling is lost, the child may feel guilty for being the surviving one and, often, is emotionally abandoned by gutted parents, who are awash in their own grief.
The death of a parent is particularly traumatic for young children. Their sense of attachment and self is rattled; the child can feel abandoned, adrift and untethered. The disconnect that comes with grief can have profound consequences. It is not unusual to see signs of depression, anxiety, fear and anger. It is very challenging for children to come to terms with their significant loss.
What can a parent do?
You become the safe container. You are the space that holds, allows and accepts all the various feelings that ricochet off the walls of your little one’s heart. You are their anchor.
You do not have to know all the answers, but you do need to be authentic.
Children resonate with truth.
Children may not always understand your words, but they can feel the truth of what you are saying. When your words and feelings match, you are coherent and, in turn, your children trust you and feel safe.
Children know and understand more than we think.
Little Sean was deemed too young to go to his sister’s funeral. His parents thought he wouldn’t understand. While his parents and older siblings went to the funeral, Sean, home with a babysitter, climbed up onto his parents’ bed and pulled down the crucifix from the wall and proceeded to bash everything within his reach. Sean knew something was wrong.
The most important thing we can do for our children is to encourage them to express their feelings.
Parents often want their kids to hurry up and be ok again. It is difficult to sit with a grief-stricken child. However, if we leap-frog over the grieving process and truncate our feelings, especially our heavier, stickier feelings, we – both child and adult – remain emotionally stuck. True freedom from the heartbreak is to walk through the panoply of feelings as they ebb and flow.
We need to feel to heal.
Your little one may ask, “Is it ok to be mad?” And yes, it is. Whatever the feeling – anger, rage, sadness, fear, guilt – give your child permission to express it. There is no judgment or attempt to minimize or dismiss the feeling. This is not the time for stiff upper lips and “Don’t be a cry-baby” admonitions. This is the time to draw, act it out, have conversations via stuffed animals, and the like.
Grief and sadness are not a linear process; they move in idiosyncratic waves. Give your child permission to be just as he is. There is no right or wrong in this process.
However, if there is protracted lack of sleep, nightmares, unrelenting angry outbursts, refusal to eat, etc., seek professional help. You never have to go through this alone.
Remind your children that they are not alone.
Death can prompt fears of more death, be it their own or, most especially, the remaining parent.
Get a good-sized piece of blank paper along with crayons, markers and colored pencils. Have your child draw themselves as a stick figure in the middle of the page. Then, ask your child to draw the people who make her feel loved, cared for and safe. Draw these identified people around her stick-figure-self. Ideally, your child will see herself flanked by a myriad of loved ones and visually grasp that she is not alone. This picture is worth a thousand words.
Watch and listen.
Your children will show you or tell you what they need.
When 6-year-old Jack lost several of his school friends in a random shooting, he took his new school pictures and with the back of each picture, he wrote his friend’s name and added how he liked to play with each friend. On the front, he taped a tiny handmade cross. Jack asked his mom to give each personalized picture to the respective mom of his murdered classmates. When Jack completed his self-appointed task, he felt much better. Jack intuitively knew how to take care of himself as he expressed his jumbled-up feelings in a creative, loving way.
Honor the memory.
Ritual is another way to create meaning, express feelings and provide some closure. One idea is to use helium balloons. Have your child draw a picture or write some words to their departed loved one. This can be done on the balloon itself or a small piece of paper inserted into the balloon. In a mindful way, you and your child release the balloon to honor their loved one. This is a lovely healing ritual that has been most successful with smalls and very effective in allowing the children to let go in a natural way.
Mary liked going to the cemetery with her dad several times a year. They have been doing this since her mother died. Her dad had lost his brother when he was small. When he grew up, he would take a little token — like a small truck, rock, or an odd-shaped piece of wood – and leave it at the gravesite after each visit. The tradition continued with Mary. She painted small cards, picked flowers, found pretty shells and would always leave a little something for her mom with each visit. It was comforting to Mary.
Grief: a process of resilience
Grief is a heartbreaking road, especially for children. However, it can be negotiated with mindful and loving care. If we adults remember to speak truth from our hearts, proceed gently, encourage a varied and creative expression of feelings, and keep the departed loved one alive through stories, good memories and ritual, our children can become more resilient, wiser from the experience and carry expanded hearts.
Go gently. And, remember to take care of yourself as well. This is not an easy path to negotiate. And, remember, you have the heart to shepherd your bereft child through these most tender times.