What Do I Say To Grieving Kids? Part 1

Auntie Paula, Auntie Paula.” I heard those words a million times yesterday as I spent a lovely afternoon with my friend Mindy and her 4 year old, son Jeremy, who refers to me as Auntie Paula. We romped around the Torrey Pines Reserve and beach for several glorious hours. A more perfect setting could not exist for an inquisitive child who loves nature.

Watching Mindy and her son racing and playing on the beach made me think about how much we all love our children and how hard we try to do everything perfectly, so that they can grow up healthy and well adjusted, able to live perfect lives.

And yet, we all know that in spite of our best efforts, life happens. Natural disasters occur, people and animal friends die, and unexpected moves spring them selves upon us. There are so many imperfect parts of life that can’t be avoided.

So what do you do when life imposes cruel reality on your perfect plan?

Clients with children ask me all the time, “What do I say to the kids? How do I tell them this horrible truth?

Let me share with you what I have learned over the last 27 years of working with this situation:

Our emotional responses to loss in adulthood are based upon losses we experienced as children and what we observed going on in the people around us. The behaviors, attitudes, and emotions expressed, or not expressed, by our family, friends, acquaintances and people in authority, teach us most of what we know about dealing with loss. These first experiences are powerful teachers. They create beliefs about the way things are and they demonstrate what seems to be the “right way” to deal with loss.

When interacting with bereaved children it is very important that we remember that they are learning from what they observe in us. Remember they are children and don’t deluge them with too much information or too much drama. It is helpful for them to see the reality of grief, that it is sad and that we need to cry and express our authentic emotions but it is not wise to overload them with a lot of adult emotion that they can do nothing about.

Help them realize that grief is the normal, natural result of loss and that if we express the pain, in acceptable ways, as it comes up, it will soon dissipate.

Remember that children hear words in a very literal way. Don’t use phrases like “The doggy doctor put Fluffy to sleep.” Or “God wanted Daddy to be in heaven with him.” This kind of statement can create fears and anxiety in children around sleep or God’s arbitrary decisions.

People often ask if children should attend the funeral in the case of a death.  My response is that unless the child expressly states that they don’t want to go, they absolutely should. They need closure experiences just like adults do. Caution…Do Not force them to go up to an open casket unless they desire to.

We will look at more dos and don’ts in part 2.

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