Children are sometimes called “the forgotten grievers” because their grief often gets overlooked as friends and communities come together to help adults cope with a death.
After my son Jack died in an accident, I wasn’t sure how best to support my young daughter Margaret. My instincts told me to keep her close to home and be a safe place for all of her feelings, but I was depleted and not even sure I could trust my instincts any more. After all, I was the one who had let my two kids play in the rain on a balmy September day, and only one had come home.
I asked adults who had experienced grief as children what they would have found most helpful when they were younger.
Here are some of their responses:
“Don’t lie to them. Be honest with age appropriate answers to their questions. And I always tell my children that Heaven isn’t in the sky. Heaven is all around us every day — so they will find their loved ones who are always with them.”
“I would let them know it is totally normal for a child to want to continue their regular schedule. As adults, we immediately want to stop everything and grieve, but a lot of children handle grief by wanting to do the same things they do every day — go to school, church, play. I also think it’s important for the adult to meet the child where the child is at — if the child needs a break to cry, but then wants to play like nothing happened, that is totally okay. Let the child cry, and then let the child play.”
“My Dad passed away when I was nine. People were afraid to mention his name or tell me stories about him because they thought it would make me sad. In return, I didn’t bring him up to my mom because I was afraid to make her sad. The fear of something happening to Mom was also very real and strong. I didn’t know exactly how he died until many years later. So my advice is to talk about it and the person the child is grieving for.”
“Tell the truth, age appropriately. Expect them to have as intense and varied emotions as you. Expect their grief to look different from yours. Rely on your people — ask close family friends to take your kid to a movie or out to lunch. Kids are swept under the rug so much in deep grief, providing special attention to them helps them feel valued and remembered.”
“Emphasize no guilt! No matter what, they were not in control of the loss and should carry no guilt. They couldn’t be “bad enough” to cause it; they couldn’t be “good enough” to prevent it.”
“Help them find others who are in their situation, so they will feel less alone.”
“Talk about the memories they had with that loved one.”
A big thank you to these folks for sharing their perspectives to help me better understand children’s grief. My new book for grieving children springs from my experience of mothering a grieving child, and from talking to many others about grief. A Hug from Heaven, told from the point of view of the loved who died, assures kids it is appropriate to feel a wide range of emotions, to talk about and remember the person who died, and to find ways to continue the relationship, because LOVE never dies.
November is Children's Grief Awareness Month.
1 in 5 children will experience the death of a close loved one before age 18. They need support. If you are a trusted adult in a grieving child's life, here are some excellent resources: