When a Child Shares Your Grief
Grief in childhood is a sacred passage.
Like adults, each child’s experience of a loved one’s departure is unique. The emotional ramifications and repercussions depend less on the child’s age and more on how close the child is to the deceased. How they experience their loved one’s departure shapes their future understanding of love and its loss. Few things are more important.
The very young child’s cognitive abilities are ill-suited to comprehend death and the loss of a loved one. You must help them. Using plain and simple language, share the truth of what has happened. The vital word is truth. You may omit any detail or aspect of your loved one’s death that the child would find troubling or difficult to grasp, but do not tell a falsehood.
Think of truth as sacrosanct. Truth to human consciousness is as water is to life—absolutely necessary in order to thrive. Lies are the opposite, even with young children, maybe especially for young children. The purpose of lies is to conceal truth.
Here is an unalterable truth: good cannot come from lies.
One of many reasons is that on the most meaningful level, human beings recognize lies. Often without full awareness, when confronted with a lie our consciousness is forced to engage in cognitive calisthenics: do we pretend to believe the lie; what truth does the lie conceal; what purpose is served by concealing this truth? All of this leads to an unsettled sense of something amiss: Lies cause confusion, distrust, uncertainty and unease.
This is especially true for young people. The young child’s consciousness is self-centered (in the extreme). Most children view the world through the prism of self; everything is about them. Children often create nightmarish scenarios to explain the lies their parents present to them and more often than not, they assign blame to themselves or to something they did. This is especially common when a child loses a sibling or a parent. So, it is imperative to tell the children the truth about the death of a loved one and again, in the most plain and simple language possible.
Then make the loss of your loved one all about love. Express your love for the deceased and how very much you will miss them. Most children, bewildered by what has happened, will attempt to comfort you. Hold the child close and let them. Tell them that their comfort is helping you and thank them.
Express the departed’s love for the child. Do this over and over. Tell the child how much they were loved by the one who has passed. Include three memories that illustrate the departed’s love for the child. Add details to these memories over time, turning them into treasured stories.
If you hold a belief in transcendence, or have a religious ideation of heaven, or even if you are an atheist or agnostic, share with the child the common belief of heaven. Children have their whole lives to work out the ontological reality of heaven, but right now they need to know about this magical place where families are reunited in love. They need the comfort and cushion that only heaven provides. Just the story of heaven helps them mediate this loss. Atheists and agnostics sometimes struggle with a presentation of heaven to their children, but you can eliminate any qualms by using these words: Most people believe that when we die, we go to heaven. Heaven is a wonderful place where someday we will all be together again… I love this! Imagine someday we will all be together again…
Heaven takes away a child’s fear of loss.
A child’s grief is different from yours. Expect this from the vast majority of children of all ages, but especially the young child: they absorb the information of their loved one’s death and its emotional content, and within a shockingly short time, they behave as if nothing much happened. Even though it can take years to understand their loss, many children appear to return to normal life almost instantly. This sometimes alarms parents, especially parents of teenagers. They imagine their child is somehow unfeeling. But wait…
Something will happen that stands in (substitutes) for the loss and triggers tears of grief. A normally happy-go-lucky child will suddenly become inconsolable over a lost toy; a minor glitch will be catastrophized with a tantrum and tears; a nightmare becomes a traumatic event. You need to be there to comfort the child.
Once the emotions simmer, share with them what you like to do when you feel sad. I like to remember the time when… and review memories of your loved one, especially happy memories that center on the departed’s relationship with the child. Poetic sojourns into the past have the awesome power to convey all the love the departed had for the child and this is what helps the child. Populate these memories with positive affirmations from the loved one. They love you so much! You know they always thought you were the smartest person since Einstein… and so on.
Grieving children of all ages—from preschool to teenagers--often develop secret fears surrounding how their loss will affect their future. The most common of these is that something will happen to surviving family members—as if once this door to loss has been opened, it cannot be closed again. You can alleviate these fears with a willingness to discuss their feelings and fears, all the while holding them extra close. Inquire as to their evolving thoughts and feelings: When do you miss your mom the most? Do you ever dream of your brother? Do you ever feel your dad’s presence? These conversations should continue throughout life.
It is important to express your belief in the grieving child’s resiliency.
For young and older children alike, it is meaningful to create a memorial book or webpage of pictures of the loved one, especially pictures that include the child. You can make a sequential book of the deceased’s life, beginning at their birth and traveling onward. Encourage older children to turn their fondest memories into written narratives. This can become a book. Add every positive statement of love from the departed to the child that you remember. These treasure books can last the child’s entire life.
As time goes on, continue to keep your loved one’s memory alive for the child. Periodically share stories drawn from their life whenever an external signal reminds you or a memory emerges in your consciousness. Sing prayers in your loved one’s name. Play their favorite music when you share favorite moments. Light a candle next to your loved one’s picture during birthdays and holidays. Celebrate their memory throughout life.
When grief becomes a bridge to love, this love will light the child’s way throughout life. The experience teaches them that their loved one’s life mattered; their schoolmate’s life is important; the neighbor’s live counts; their own life is meaningful. They will have earned a deep understanding of love and loss that will serve their whole life long.