Sorrow is a normal emotion for any child to experience. Often when loss occurs in a child’s life, like the death of a loved one or pet, parents and caregivers avoid the subject or try to make light of the topic. Sometimes they will even give the child gifts or do something to distract him from the emotion he is showing. While this can make the adults caring for the child feel better, it does not truly help the child in any way. Your child needs to be allowed to move though the grieving process. When he is younger it is your job to guide him along this path. Below are four ways you can help your child move through the stages of grief and come out on the other side healthier, happier and ready for the many sad events life has to hold.
- Show emotion yourself. Many adults never had positive examples of sorrow as a child, so when sadness comes to their child, their first instinct is to bottle that emotion up until they can be alone. Some parents are simply afraid that by being sad, they will make their child sadder, and they don’t wish to manufacture a reason for their child to cry. However, children learn by example. If your child sees you cry or be upset in some way about loss, it helps him understand that his feelings of sorrow are normal when he loses someone close to him. If you bottle everything up, however, you are unintentionally shaming your child into bottling up his emotions, too. Instead, feel free to cry and be angry with your child around. Talk about the love you had for the person and why that person will be missed. Make sure your child gets to see all of the stages of your heartache, even the end result of acceptance of the loss.
- Avoid distracting him from his emotion. When a child begins to grieve, his mind often starts worrying that he will lose things closest to him. He may begin to get scared that he will lose his parents, friends, pets and siblings. No one wants to consider the worst, and when children say things like “are you going to die?” those closest to him cringe at truthfully answering that question. However, the most helpful thing you can do for your child in that situation is to answer it honestly. The truth is that yes, someday you will die. We all will. You can simply say to your child “Yes, some day I will die, but I hope to live for a very long time and I have worked hard to make sure you will be very well cared for if and when I do die.” How you elaborate will greatly depend on your own faith beliefs.
- Ask him how he feels; don’t tell him how to feel. While it is true that you want to show your own sorrow during the grieving process, you also want to avoid telling the child how to feel. If he seems unmoved by the loss of his pet, do not imply to him that he should be more upset. He might surprise you by not really having much feeling about it right away, only to have that emotion surface weeks and even months later. Just make sure he knows that he can talk with you about it when and if he ever feels like it. If he does have a strong emotional outpouring right away, allow it to happen. Crying and being angry are very common for any person suffering from a loss. Ask questions that might help him say how he feels. Give him time to come up with some answers. If he cannot find the words, especially when he is young, it can be helpful to say, “When I lose a pet I feel sad because I remember all the wonderful times I had with him and feel like I will miss those in the future.” This is not telling him how he should feel, but instead giving him some ideas on why he feels so sad.
- Be with him and be understanding through all stages of grief. The number one thing you can do for your child as he is grieving is to just be present with him. It is what he needs more than anything. This will allow him time to move from disbelief to anger to negotiation to depression and finally to acceptance.
Humans will never be without loss in life. That is why it is so important for children to learn how to grieve. You can help them learn this while they are still in the early stages of life when they want help from parents and caregivers. It is so much better for them to be sad while you are able to be right by their side than for them to find themselves older and without these healthy life tools.