Helping a Grieving Child
by Kerry Tittle
Looking into the eyes of children who had lost their father and two of their siblings as well as all the surroundings they had ever known, was assuredly the most helpless time of my entire life. There was part of me that was afraid to look at my children in the eye because I had absolutely no idea of how to care for them or what to say to them. Apparently the feeling was mutual.
We lived for the longest time acting as if not much had happened. When in actuality the greatest tragedy I could have dreamed up had really occurred!
Most of what I am going to share with you is out of years of trial and error. This is probably the most uncomfortable piece I’ve ever written, because its an area I’m still learning in every day. I spent the past summer dialoging and questioning different professionals that worked with children. Some came from a Christian worldview, some didn’t. I poured over books on trauma and PTSD. I even went as far to interview a military soldier who had suffered.
I realize there are ways to help grieving children outside the home. I won’t touch too much on that because that is a controversial path and that needs to be chosen according to your convictions. I am not a medical or mental health professional; I simply have an insane amount of experience with a traumatized family. These are simply ideas that could be used to help during the hardship.
The most important support a child can have is a strong trusted relationship and hope. There needs to be someone in the child’s life communicating the goodness of God in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Understand the Mind of a Child
This is key! Crazy as it sounds, I have homeschooled a large family for almost 20 years and I have been blown away from what I have learned about children and how they think.
Adults tend to be unaware of how children process information. Children are concrete thinkers. Their literal thinking draws conclusions from the physical world around them. If they are not helped to understand Truth they will interpret events around them in their own way. This could start potentially damaging thought patterns that can go unnoticed for years until challenging behaviors began to surface. This is why verbal communication is essential to the healing process.
Breaking the grief barrier is awkward. However, there are ways to make it a little less uncomfortable. The book Flippers was an accidental anthropomorphic, healing story. My seven-year-old son began to tell a “story” of an imaginary Platypus. Storytelling is a very common occurrence in our family but this was different. Flippers seemed all too familiar. I began to realize what was going on. I began to encourage him with questions about Flippers (while erratically typing!). Soon I understood why there were outbursts of anger for no apparent reason from what use to be a very calm boy. Not all children are story tellers, but each child has a way to grieve, sometimes it just takes time to find it.
Some ways to explore grief:
- Story telling
- Pretend play using toys as significant people
- Acting out the story
- Using sensory items like sand or calming bottles
- Sequence pillows
- Journaling memories
- Making a memory box
- Creating a Scrapbook
- Writing a letter to the loved one they lost
What do I Say?
Once you have found an approach to help your child communicate, try not to be intimidated with the task before you. Children must be helped to accept the realities of grief. As hard as it is, you will most likely find that this step will form a very special bond between you and the child.
It’s ok to tell the child that you are a little uncomfortable about it too.
Here are some ways to dialog with the child:
“There are lots of ways we can let the hurt out and it makes me feel close to you when we get to do that together.”
“I know its important and I want to do my best to walk with you through this.”
“I am so thankful you have come to me. Its ok to be _____ .”(sad, hurt, angry or crying)
“Talking with you has helped me to get my hurt out too, I love being able to connect with you in this way.”
Here are a few tips to help with communication:
- Use words that convey the idea of shared hurt. Those words strengthen relationships between people and God.
- When talking to the child be patient and try not to show surprise. Our facial expressions can sometimes communicate whether or not we are making it a safe place to share. If a child senses he may surprise or hurt you with his grief he may not open up.
- It can be difficult for children to form words to help them with what they are feeling. Don’t prompt them too much. This will lead them to your ideas instead of their own.
- Generalizations are not helpful for children and can actually be harmful. “Aunt Sue is happy in Heaven now”, “Grandpa died because he was old”, “She has gone to eternity.” These types of short answers can leave a child more confused and cause them to draw wrong conclusions such as only old people die (they will know that isn’t true and can lead to distrust), Heaven can’t be too happy because everyone seems sad, I am afraid to go “away” I may never come back, people can die in their sleep so I am afraid to go to sleep…..etc. Children may require shorter answers but we need to make sure we have given them enough information to process properly.
- If you watch children closely sometimes their struggles come out in their play life. There may be an elaborate funeral being played out, or a toy “dying”. If this occurs don’t give a reaction that could shame the child or embarrass them. This can be a horrifying moment to the adult but it could simply be a way for the child to express his grief. This is an opportune moment to ask questions and talk!
- Be truthful. If there is a mistrust of information children tend to make up the information.
- Listen without judgement. Don’t interrupt the child and try to evaluate or fix the problem. Let them talk freely. Oftentimes, trying to fix the problem can frustrate when they only want to talk.
- Accept that their grieving will be different. Their concerns will not be your concerns. It is important to love them through differences even if it is irrational thinking.
- Learn to identify the child as an internalizer or an externalizer. Internalizers (tend to be girls but not always) hold their emotions inside and tend to experience more symptoms of depression or anxiety. They usually will not initiate in sharing their world. Externalizers on the other had, (tend to be boys but not always) will usually express their anger, hurt or sadness through acting out or angry outburst. They can appear as defiant. Once you have determined how the child responds to trials it will be easier to understand their behavior.
- Be aware of signs of avoidance. This is common since no one likes to think or talk about trials. Avoidance can only give short term respite. Emotions can show up when least expect- ed and this can be troubling for a child. Even scary. Nightmares are common for children who suppress their feelings.