Recently, my daughter had a huge display of emotion. It was big and raw and it broke my heart to see it. She described feelings that were important and very similar to grief. In my effort to help her through it, I was tempted to save her from it several times, to tell her that it was okay and she didn’t need to feel the way she did. After all, she is only six years old. Truthfully, the event in question happened a while ago and I wasn’t even sure why she remembered it. But, years of my own grief and working within the grief and loss community had taught me enough about judging anyone else’s grief or how long their grief lasts. I have made it a point to be open with everyone, including our children about my own grief, so why should I expect her to be quiet about hers?
Grief in children looks different than it does in adults. An adult could probably say, “I feel grief.” But kids are less likely to articulate grief in the same way. They may express fear, sudden anxiety, withdrawal, or even anger. It took some calming her down and reassuring her that her feelings were safe with me. She cried, and I did my best to manage my own feelings. As parents, we do our best to normalize our children’s grief. We teach them a lot about how to express and manage their feelings.
I know all children may react differently, but I thought I would share five quick thoughts on responding to grief in children.
1. Listen without interruption
As hard as it may be hard to see your child this upset, please do not rush in with ways to make them feel better, even though that is obviously the goal. Being able to communicate their feelings is an integral part of emotional intelligence and giving them the space to talk and cry helps them not only create language to express their emotions but it also teaches them that you value what they have to say. Listening with your whole body can give children the confidence to keep sharing with you, not just in the moment but in the future.
2. Validate their grief
I wanted my daughter to know that it was okay for her to feel sad. That grief happens to everyone at some point and that having these feelings are quite normal. Validating your child’s feelings may look like many things from maintaining eye contact and hugs (when appropriate) to reassuring words like, “I know that you feel very upset right now and I want you to know that it is okay. Whenever you are ready, we can talk about it.”
3. Assure them that their feelings are safe with you
As parents, we want our children to come to us with whatever emotions they may be feeling, especially when if they are experiencing difficult emotions. So taking the time to tell your child that it is safe for them to tell you about their grief is important. Tell them that, even though it may be hard to hear, you are there to listen and support them no matter what. And of course, follow through with the support. If you need time to process it, ask for it. But please remember the courage it took for them to share their feelings with you.
4. Share your own journey with grief
While kids may grieve differently from you, they often take cues from their parents. This is not the time to bombard them with all of your grief, but it is an excellent opportunity to be honest and vulnerable with your children. Tell them about the things that have helped you cope, things that are hard for you to deal with, and lessons that you have learned.
Our children get so much from us. They inherit our eyes, height, and sense of humor. So it would make sense that they will inherit other traits from us as well. Modeling the behaviors that we want to see in our children becomes very important.
5. Talk about other ways that they can work out their grief
I told my daughter that sometimes I feel grief over things that have happened and that I often need to pray about it and talk it over with her dad. She was relieved to know that she was not alone and that she could share these things with me and her father. We spoke about ways she could express her grief as well.
Crying is a wonderful way to express grief, but there may be times when crying can make kids feel too vulnerable, so ask your children, “What are some other great ways they can share their grief with you?” They may suggest drawing and writing or even taking a walk. They may prefer to do some activities alone, and sometimes they may need your assistance to navigate their grief.
Nothing discussed here is exactly groundbreaking but it is important that we acknowledge and respond to grief in children. What are some ways you have created space for grief in your children?