Helping Children Grieve

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How do you help children grieve?

We know how difficult it can be to find the right words to comfort children. We don’t want to say the wrong thing, but we also want to connect with them and offer our support. Finding this balance is challenging if you don’t have the right tools for the job.

We think we are armed when we utter kind statements which can make the problem worse.

Well-intentioned kind statements adults use:

At the loss of a loved one: “Please don’t cry, your grandad/dad/mom would not want you to be sad”.

At the loss of a pet: “Don’t be sad, we’ll get you a new cat/dog/hamster”.

When a loved one is in hospital and the child fears the worse: “Don’t worry, I ‘m sure he/she will get better soon”

When a teenage looses his/her first love: “There’s plenty more fish in the sea”

When a child changes his/her school: “Think of all the friends you’ll make at your new school”.

When parents separate: “Look on the bright side, now you will get to have two birthday parties, one at your Mum’s and one at your Dad’s”.

The child may stop crying to please you, but the message received is that it’s not okay to be sad and grieve.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know what to say or do when children come to you for comfort? Imagine knowing the right words and actions to take with a child who is grieving a loss!

Answering those awkward questions

As a parent, teacher or professional who lives or works with children you have no doubt felt that sinking feeling that happens when children ask the difficult questions about death and loss or are experiencing sad and painful feelings.

On average, most children will encounter 15 significant losses before they reach adulthood. The most common losses for children and teenagers are:

  • Loss of a pet
  • Loss of a grandparent
  • Moving house/ changing schools
  • Divorce
  • Death of a parent /friend/ or relative
  • Bullying
  • Having a close friend move away
  • Not being accepted by the university of their choice
  • Debilitating injury to themselves or someone important to them
  • Covid / lockdowns

The recent pandemic has brought so much disruption into our lives and children are not immune to this.

Here are some not so obvious losses they may feel:

  • Loss of freedom when they can’t go out,
  • after school activities,
  • socializing,
  • feeling the intangible losses like loss of feeling safe,
  • loss of energy or aliveness.

We may think we need to teach our children to “look on the bright side” or we try and distract them with a gift or a treat. Children may allow themselves to be distracted for a while, but the grief does not go away. It often manifests in other areas, causing serious problems in school and at home.

Warning signs of unresolved or unacknowledged grief include:

  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Reduced participation or interest in class or activities
  • Angry or violent outbursts
  • Risk taking behaviours
  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares
  • Frequent absence from school

It therefore falls to us in how we support children in their grief which is vital to their further development and overall wellbeing.

You go first

How often do we struggle for the right words to help our children deal with loss and grief? It’s like rummaging in the toolbox for the right tool only to find we don’t have it.

We’ve all learned how to acquire things in life but what we were never taught was what to do when we lose them? So we arrive at adulthood with misinformation and no real knowledge of how to deal with loss and grief.

Early messages from our elders have taught us that in order to fit in, we should not make a fuss, bury our painful emotions, grieve alone and put on a brave face. Do we pass on the same misinformation to the children in our care? Do we teach them to stick a plaster on their emotional pain?

Here’s the thing, did you know that grief is felt in the heart and not the head? Yet we attempt to come at it logically, analytically, intellectually in an effort to heal it. All the wrong tools to heal a broken heart suffering with emotional pain, but treated like they have a physical ailment.

It is the equivalent of turning up with a hammer and drill to paint the walls.

How does it work?

As we learn to support children who are experiencing heartbreak, we dismantle the myths and misinformation surrounding grief and replace them with more helpful and accurate concepts. You might say we put together a new tool kit.

Children learn by example so you, as the adult, always go first by using your new tools and skills. You are then able to guide children or teens through the correct action steps that will help them deal with their loss and grief.

By teaching them how to break the cycle of burying emotions and giving them the vocabulary, they need to express themselves, we set a new tone for the emotional health of the children in our care and change the trajectory for future generations.

Who is this program for?

This programme was written for adults with children and teenagers in their care:

If you are at home:

  • Parents, grandparents and foster parents
  • Aunts and Uncles

If In Education:

  • School and preschool teachers
  • Child Care workers and nannies
  • Pastoral Care Staff

If you are involved in after school activities

  • Youth Group leaders
  • Scouts and guides leaders
  • Sports coaches

If you are involved with general wellbeing of children:

  • Foster and adoptive services
  • Nurses, GP’s
  • Hospices
  • Social workers

In fact, any adult that has a position of trust in a child or teenager’s life.

A child will disclose their feelings to the people they feel most comfortable with, this could be anyone they know and have a connection with.

If you care about them – then this programme is for you.

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