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How Can I Help My Child Express Feelings About Grief?

February 1, 2020

After the death of a loved one or someone important, children may feel many different emotions and will need adult support to cope with the grief experience. Caring adults can make a big impact during these times in helping children make sense of what happened.

It can be difficult to talk about all the various feelings of loss following a death, and it can be especially hard for adults to talk to children about their feelings. Parents and caregivers are often unsure of what to say; afraid of saying the wrong thing; or worried about upsetting the child. As a result, they end up saying nothing which can be very isolating for a grieving child.

“One of the pitfalls we often run into as adults is that we try to protect kids, but sometimes in trying to protect them, we’re shielding them from information that will actually help them understand what’s happened,” said Maureen Patterson-Fede, Mental Health Clinician, The Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center.

Talking honestly and directly to children about the death of a loved one lets them know that it’s acceptable to express their feelings, to ask questions about their experience, or to invoke the memory of their loved one. If you avoid speaking about death or talking about the person who has died, chances are the children in your life will avoid it as well.

Tips for Talking to Children About Grief

Adults should avoid using euphemistic language around death when speaking to children. Don’t use terms such as, “passed on” or “grandpa is in a better place.” Instead, use concrete, simple language. You can say, “Grandpa died. That means that grandpa’s body totally stopped working. He doesn’t feel pain. He can’t breathe, talk, or jump up and down.”

Remember, these conversations don’t have to happen at one time. Children may need multiple chances to process information, so check in regularly to see how they’re doing and note their understanding. Some children may not be ready for this kind of discussion. Let them know that you will be available for them when they are ready.

Model appropriate behavior by talking about your own feelings around the loss. It’s okay to cry or admit that it’s hard for you to talk about what happened. Let children know that just because you’re sad, does not mean that they cannot talk to you about their own feelings.

Helping Your Child Express Feelings About Grief

Grieving children may feel angry, sad, confused, guilty, or embarrassed—and all of these emotions are a normal part of the grieving process. One helpful tool in providing a safe space for children to express their emotions is the Moon Balloon Project, which utilizes the children’s book, A Journey in The Moon Balloon by author and illustrator Joan Drescher.

If you notice worries, fears, or misconceptions, try to correct the misconceptions and reassure the child that he or she is not at fault. If their worries or fears don’t go away or you notice extreme changes in behavior, seek out additional supports.

Find ways to remember their special person and encourage children to share their favorite memories. Children can use creative projects to express their emotions such writing letters, making a memory box, or drawing pictures. Younger children may express their feelings and fears through play, so pay attention to the child’s play activities.

It’s important to maintain consistent and regular routines. Keeping consistent routines helps children feel that their world is still under control and maintaining a regular schedule can help children adapt to the changes while still moving forward.

Most importantly, it’s okay if you don’t know all the answers. There are resources and support systems that can help you and your family during this difficult time. Grief support groups, mental health professionals, hospice organizations, and grief hot lines can provide the support and information you may need to consider how a loss is impacting your child and the best ways to support that child. Please use this link to the National Alliance for Grieving Children to find support in your area.

For more information, visit The Good Grief Program website or download their program brochure.

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