All is Not Lost: Helping Your Child to Grieve
When your child experiences a loss, it’s important that they process their emotions and communicate their needs without feeling like they have developed an unfillable void. Clinical Psychologist Dr Charine Janse Van Rensburg explores the concept of loss and how to help your child experience it constructively and adapt to the new situation that arises from it.
Loss can be defined as any event or situation that makes an individual feel that something has been taken away from them, leaving behind a void and a sense of emptiness. Loss is also experienced in different ways depending on the age of the child, and parents need to communicate with a certain sensitivity to the child’s level of understanding.
Different losses, same support
Whether the loss is a result of normal transitions like adjusting to moving house (where the child experiences the loss of familiar surroundings and people) or a new baby in the family (the loss of the child’s personal space and his parents’ attention); or whether it’s a more serious loss, like divorce or a parent with severe illness or death in the family, what children need most is to feel supported, validated and contained throughout the process.
There are basic commonalities in the mourning process regardless of the type or severity of the loss, and parents need to help children articulate their emotions, while listening, validating and empathising with their child’s feelings. Words are power, so parents should help children to label the emotions they experience, and help them to problem solve when the situation calls for it.
Dealing with expected changes
When a loss is predictable, like moving house or the arrival of a new baby, parents can start preparing their children in advance. Talking about the upcoming change will allow the child to gain a sense of familiarity and allow them to express any concerns or ask questions. It is extremely important to involve children in the process leading up to big life changes – for example, when moving to a new house, allowing the child to choose bedding and decorations for her new room, showing him pictures of the new house and getting him to pack some of his own toys, as this creates a sense of predictability. Remember that as much as the loss may not seem big to you as an adult, it could be extremely difficult for your child.
Dealing with unexpected changes
When the loss is more significant or unpredictable, like the death of a family member or a trauma, loss is dealt with afterwards. Following such an event, it is important that a close family member tell the child as soon as possible in a normal and calm voice. Be honest, but sensitive to the child’s age and what is and isn’t appropriate information. Parents need to be aware that children will seek reassurance, asking the same questions about the event to test that the story has not changed, not to obtain more detail.
In order to support a child emotionally through the process, parents can ask the child to draw a picture of how they feel, or choose a colour to describe their feelings when they think about the event. Parents can also use other media like painting or playing with playdough to help especially younger children to express their emotions.
Proactive grieving for the purpose of closure
If the loss is a death in the family, it is important that the child is given time and space to talk about the person who passed away. Lighting a candle, planting a tree, creating a photo album with good memories and writing down little things they remember about the person will encourage them to grieve and process the loss in a healthy way.
All children and adults, regardless of their age, will go through a grieving process in their own time, and this should always be respected. They will experience normal emotions relating to loss, including denial, anger, sadness, guilt and helplessness, at any time during the grieving process. Instead of telling them that it will get better, tell them that it is ok to feel the way they do.
If you, yourself are struggling to deal with loss, and are uncertain and concerned about your child’s emotional state following loss, it is always a good idea to take them to a professional who can assist both you and them with the grieving process.