In order to help anyone who is grieving there must be a kind, caring, and knowledgeable community surrounding them. That type of community is always needed, but it is especially important when trying to support families and—specifically—children who are grieving. Over time, evidence has shown that it doesn’t help children if we protect them from grief. As adults/caregivers, we need to help them navigate their feelings and emotions that surround the grieving process.
Keeping that in mind, you can’t support the child unless you support the family. A wonderful social worker has reminded me of that concept more than once. As supporters, volunteers, doulas, etc., our role should be guiding family when they need it and providing the tools to help both the family as a whole and the child grieve safely. We can do our very best to help, but we need to be willing to accept that we can't always control the outcome. What we do need to do as caring and loving adults is recognize that a child will grieve and there is help for the family as well as the child. The task is to match the right support to the needs of the child.
Instinctively, as adults, we want to take away a child’s pain. Instead, however, we need to teach children to embrace that pain. Even though I know better, I still find it very difficult to embrace grief. When the opportunity arises to talk about death to a child, we should. Pets are great examples where you could talk about death, what it means, as well as traditions and rituals that might be respected in your culture. You can talk about how to make memories so that the loved one could be honoured. This could be done with a funeral, a poem, a picture, or other means. I am not suggesting a deep dive but rather an introduction to the fact that death is part of life. Talking about death even to a very young child helps them understand grief, loss, and sadness. It can also introduce them to healthy coping strategies.
Times have changed, and we have grown to realize we need to talk about our feelings in order to work through them. That concept stands for both children and adults alike. With that said, there isn’t a right or wrong way of coping with grief. How each of us grieve will be different even if we were to bear witness to the same event. How we interpret the situation when a death or life-limiting diagnosis of someone we know and or love is unique to the individual. Children are no different than adults in that respect.
How we felt about the individual who died impacts us greatly in terms of how we both process and deal with grief. Does the child feel any guilt, anger, sadness? Are they confused? It is important to have an honest dialogue with the child about their understanding of what has happened, and about their feelings, questions, and concerns.
I lost my sister when I was 17. I am 55 now and looking back, I was a very angry teenager who bottled up her emotions. I still have grief, albeit my life has grown around the loss. I have learned that saying “I lost my sister” isn’t the way you should speak about death with a child. It’s too confusing especially for young children who take things literally and may want to go looking for her. It is important to be very concrete when speaking about death. Euphemisms are never useful tools where children are concerned as they can easily be misunderstood and can create confusion.
The reality is that my sister wasn’t lost, she overdosed and died. Granted, you might not want to say so explicitly and bluntly to a child that either. Instead, an adult could have told me that my sister took way too much medication, and it stopped her heart. Words might never be perfect, but those words are the truth. It’s important to offer the right amount of information that is suitable to the child’s developmental age. You don’t necessarily have to go into great detail to answer their questions, but it is helpful to give them some information, as what they imagine is often much worse than the reality.
As a teenager, I never asked questions after my sister died. I didn’t want to upset my parents. We didn’t talk about her as a family very often, and that is how we coped. Just as parents often try to protect their children, children try to protect their parents from pain and grief too. This results in no one talking about their grief for fear of causing more pain.
This is not a helpful coping strategy. I had all these emotions, fear, guilt, and shame and as a teen, and they often came out in angry ways. It wasn’t until I had friends that I trusted that I shared my pain and felt a sense of peace.
Out of all the things adults can do, one of the best things would be to offer safe spaces for children to explore their feelings, give them opportunities to ask questions, and allow them to talk about their loved one who has died.
Anyone interested in learning how to have these conversations with children can register for HHA's talking with Kids about Dying, Death, and Grief certificate program here. The next available training weekend is April 4-May 30, 2024.
Jody Thomson is a graduate of HHA's death doula certificate program.