Perspectives on Grieving
Hands on Tools and Advice to Help Youth Cope with Loss
In her article Circles of Love, author Kate Braestrup describes a visit to her children’s psychologist after their father’s death.
“My children are suffering,” I told the psychologist. “They cry, Sometimes they don’t want to eat, they have dreams from which they awaken, weeping. What can I do to make the suffering stop?” The child psychologist said to me, gently, “Their father died.” “I know that,” I said. “And they cry, and they don’t want to eat, and …” “They lost their father,” he said. When someone we love dies, it hurts. You have to let them hurt.” Bless him, he was right: the only way to make my children immune to pain [and loss] was to make them impervious to love. And for that, fortunately, it was too late.
Children grieve. They hurt. They feel emotional, and often physical, pain after someone dies. They have trouble concentrating, sleeping and eating. They may isolate themselves, or they become very clingy. They may not seem to care about school anymore. All they want is to be with their friends--or the opposite- to be alone.
It is excruciating to watch children suffer. If we could, we would absorb it all so they would not have to. We want to help and fix it for them. We want them to be happy again and for everything to return to normal.
But we can’t take their pain away. We can’t erase the experience or change the way they are feeling. In fact, there is very little we can do. It can be a helpless experience to witness children suffering.
Throughout their lives, children have been learning coping and self-soothing strategies. They may or may not even be aware that that’s what they are. For example, a 10 year old may bite his nails when he’s anxious. A middle-schooler finds herself drawing when she’s upset. Teens will lift weights when they are angry or stressed out. They talk to friends and family about big decisions they have to make. They cry. They listen to music or write poetry. Some of these coping strategies are better than others.
We can support children by helping them identify some of the healthy coping skills that have worked for them in the past. If music has been a go-to source of comfort for your child, give them an iTunes gift card so they can download a few extra songs or share some songs that you have found helpful and soothing. Ask them to go for a run with you if that is something that has worked for them in the past. Go for a hike with them as walking next to them makes it easier for them to talk than face to face. And being in nature is a natural healing tool.
Truthfully, although the previous coping strategies are helpful, in times of intense grief, children may need to learn new strategies that they have not needed before. Here are some coping tools and strategies you may want to try with your children:
- Give your children a blank notebook or journal. This can be used as a personal diary for their eyes only, or you can ask them if they want to use it as a communication tool. If they want to talk about something they are not comfortable sharing face to face, ask them to write it in the journal. Promise that you will not speak to them about what they wrote and that you will only respond in a supportive way through the journal. This creates a safe way for them to talk to you without worrying that they will be bombarded with questions and advice. Obviously, if they talk about hurting themselves or others, you will need to break the rule and make sure they get the help they need.
- Make a memory box, or a worry box. Let your child decorate a shoebox however they want. They can fill it with memories of the person that died or with notes about their worries. This can also be a scrapbook. Discuss with your child if/how they would like to share it with you.
- Suggest writing a note or letter to the person who died. Help them talk through what to do with the letter after it’s written.
- Write a note of sympathy to the family. Share any memories or stories about the person who died that they might know about. Reaching out to support others in pain builds resilience and healing.
- Give your child an “Ask/Don’t Ask” sign. They can put it on their bedroom door to let the adults know if they want to talk or not. This allows them to feel secure that no one will barge into their room, or corner them in the car, and force them to talk when they don’t want to. Giving them the control to decide when they want support, often allows them to seek it when they do need it.
- Help normalize the child’s experience. Let them know that grief is not just emotionally exhausting - but physically, cognitively and psychologically exhausting. Grief impairs one’s ability to focus and concentrate and think. We are more clumsy and accident prone when grieving. Help children and teens practice good self-care by making sure they get enough sleep, eat healthy and get exercise.
- Suggest or give them a book or two on grief if they are a reader. If they are younger, read them one of the books from our Book List. Sometimes teens especially just need to know they are not “crazy” because grief can feel crazy-making.
- Be patient. Grief does not “resolve” in a matter of days, weeks or months. Remind yourself that there is nothing wrong with grief; it is a necessary process and it cannot be rushed.
By Mandi Zucker, Imagine Program Director