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As adults, we grieve in our own way. But sometimes, our kids are grieving and we don't even know it. People tend to think of grief as a linear process, but in reality, it can be all over the place. This is the same for our kids but there are some ways that kids grieve differently. Kristen Biehl of Amos' Anchors shares some tips on how we can help our children grieve.
The National Alliance for Grieving Children has a lot of great information and lists support resources by state. These may be camps, talking points for parents and how to understand how children process grief. Brook's Place in Indianapolis does grief care for the community, especially for children. They also have special camps for grieving children.
"Grief is not a problem we are trying to fix for our child, it is an experience that they are living". This helps put into perspective that grief is not a problem, it's a normal reaction to loss. This loss may look different and include loss of a person, pet or the loss of freedom during the pandemic. It can even be something as simple as not making the soccer team or moving. It doesn't have to deal with death. Sometimes people tell children to be strong and it's life, but it's not how kids work. They don't know how to process these changes.
Grief has a varied way of showing up and is unique to each kid. It can appear in different kinds of behavior and how they speak. Most children express their grief in bursts. They can be playing one minute and the next they are screaming and hitting pillows. Kids tend to internalize what's going on and let themselves experience it in short bursts. It's frustrating as a parent but it's a normal way for them to take it in small bites. The way that they grieve can be different depending on how close they are to the person they lost. If your children wasn't as close to the person who passed away, they may not grieve as deeply as you, so try not to push your grief onto them.
How do you approach the topic of grief with kids? You have to tell your kids the truth. One of the most dangerous things to tell your kids is that they are sleeping. Kids start to worry that it might happen to them too. It's better to use uncomfortable words like "death", "dying", "died" and "dead". Our children crave honesty and truth from us and the ability to give them truthful answers they can rely on. Kids are going to experience all different types of loss through their life. It's important to build the foundation with their first loss so later in life, they know they can rely on you to give them the right information. Obviously, the way you explain something to a two year old is different than how you would explain to a fourteen year old.
If you feel like you can't provide enough support at home, it's important to look into grief counseling for your child, especially if they aren't coping well. The general rule of thumb is if you as the adult aren't handling it well and neither is your child, you need to seek help. People assume professional help means a ton of money, but it's not true. There are many free resources out there and you can always ask your general practitioner.
Grief is unique to every person so don't assume how your child is feeling. Some kids won't want to talk about it. One of the big things is that kids are watching you to see how you grieve. Is it okay to cry? Is it okay to ask questions? Is it okay to say their name? Keep an open line of communication with your child. If they see that you're smoking when you're stressed or don't ever talk about your emotions, they may take on the same coping mechanisms as they get older. It's important to grieve in a way that's healthy because our kids are always watching us.
So how do we support our kids through their grief? The first way is to not avoid talking about it. You may think that you shouldn't bring it up because you don't want to make them sad, but they are probably wanting to talk about it. You can bring it up and give them the opportunity to share their feelings. Try not to stifle their expression. If they are out of control, it's okay to tell them "I know you're upset, but you can't scream in my ear or hit your sister. Let's go outside or let's find a pillow". We have to help them find a safe and healthy way to deal with their feelings.
Letting kids know they aren't the only ones who feel grief can help as well. Sometimes they might feel like they are the only ones in the whole world who feels the way they do. Until kids are with other children who have experienced the same, they may feel alone. This is when a camp might be helpful. You can encourage your child to write about how they are feeling. They can write a letter to who ever passed away. Play and art therapy with a professional is also a helpful technique. You can learn a lot about how a kid is feeling by how they play. They are trying to process what they've been through.
Grief can change with developmental stages. As kids are going through puberty or getting their license or get married, these stages can intensify their grief in different ways. There will be different triggers as times goes on and it's not until we have the maturity of hindsight to be able to see things that remind us of someone and see it as them sending us a memory.
It's okay to create new ways to remember, like having a picture on the wall or lighting a candle for them at Christmas. This gives you space to share and reflect on your grief. Sharing memories about someone is a way to keep someone alive and it's important that we teach our kids this. Some of those memorials will change as time goes on.
Here are some things not to say. Platitudes like "they're in a better place" or "everything happens for a reason" or "good will come from this" may minimize how your child is feeling. Good things may come but for a child who has just lost someone, you saying "everything happens for a reason" may make your child feel like they did something to cause this to happen. We shouldn't use platitudes to try to placate someone to not feeling their feelings and minimize their experience.
You may want to try to validate their feelings by saying "I know how you feel" but you can't assume you know how they feel. This changes the focus to you so saying something like "I can see you're hurting" or "I don't know how you're feeling but I want you to know what you're feeling is okay". "We have to be strong" is also a common way to help a child cope but a five year old doesn't know how to be strong. Children do not have to hold their grief on their shoulders and should be allowed to be sad. "They wouldn't want you to be sad" may be true but it doesn't help your child move forward. That's like saying "you're not allowed to be sad because grandma wouldn't want you to be sad".
Above all, we have to provide children with safety, love, stability, consistency and honesty. These are the five pillars to provide a space for children to flourish emotionally and find healthy emotions. With children, using picture books is very helpful to process loss. You can find Kristen's book recommendations on Amazon here. You can also donate a book and Amos' Anchors will give the book to a hospital.
Watch our live interview here.