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Helping Children Cope With Grief

A child you know is grieving. It breaks your heart. You wonder what you can do to support them. Here are some guidelines.
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A child you know is grieving. It breaks your heart. You wonder what you can do to support them. Here are some guidelines:

"Children want to be told the truth about the death," comments child grief expert Lauren Schneider, LCSW, "and they deserve to know what happened." Talking with kids in age-appropriate and direct language helps them clear up misconceptions and confusion about why their loved one died. If you were to merely say the person died because they were sick, the child worries that anytime someone gets sick they, too, will die. In addition, they will eventually find out the cause of death and it might be better for you to be honest with them from the beginning. Help young children understand that when someone dies it means that their body stopped working.

Children want to talk about the person who died. In fact, one of their biggest fears is that they will forget their loved one. Children need you to be able to tolerate listening when they tell their story or share their feelings. Lauren suggests that the grown-ups mention the person as part of normal, everyday conversation, and keep their memory alive.

Grieving children experience a range of emotions including sadness, anger, fear, loneliness and guilt. Letting them know that you experience these feelings, too, helps them recognize that their reactions are not babyish. If they see you cry, explain that your tears are because you miss the person who died, but remind them that you are strong enough to support them and it is not their job to take care of you.

Help children find ways to honor the person who died and hold onto their precious memories. Lauren recommends that "Including children in mourning and ongoing rituals aids in their understanding of death and helps them maintain the bond they shared before the death. Allow them to have a say in how to celebrate holidays, birthdays and anniversaries."

Grieving children often feel different and as if no one understands. "Their feelings of isolation are relieved when they connect with similarly bereaved peers in a grief support group or at a grief camp," explains Lauren. In the United States, nearly 4.8 million children under the age of 18 are grieving the death of a parent. Others have faced the death of siblings, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. "The kids recognize, as they share their thoughts and feelings, that they are not alone."

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.