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Helping Kids with Grief, Loss and Death
by Dr. Laura Markham, AhaParenting.com
Those who do not know how to weep
with their whole heart don't know how to
Learning to mourn, and to be comfortable with the grieving process, might not seem like a parenting skill. But grief is a part of every life, and how we handle loss has a huge impact on the richness of our family's emotional life. Our comfort level with loss also gives our children an important role model.
At times, there will be nothing we can do for our child except to sit with him and let him experience his grief: over a sports defeat, an inconsiderate peer, a dead pet, or even an ill or deceased loved one. To work through his grief, our child needs what therapists call a "holding environment," and we are the ones who do the holding, both physically and emotionally.
If we are so uncomfortable with loss that we cannot allow our child to mourn, we give a destructive message that is far reaching. Accepting loss as a normal part of life is important for optimal mental health for all of us. The more we allow ourselves to grieve when necessary, the more joy we can feel.
Thankfully, grief is never interminable. Like all feelings, if we let ourselves feel it, grief swamps us, and then, eventually, diminishes. Not that grief ever disappears, but we can think of it as a slice of the pie of our lives: at first an important loss pervades the entire circle of our life; but gradually the slice of our life in shadow becomes smaller and smaller. Eventually, we can go on with our lives in a healthy way, although we may always revisit the pain of our loss. But if we fend it off like an unwelcome visitor, grief doesn't leave. It takes up residence like a shadow in our psyches, and we become stuck in its bitter influence. Unresolved grief compromises resiliency, threatening to burst out at even minor provocations, leaving us fragile and prone to depression.
Our children, therefore, not only need to grieve sometimes, but need our help to do so. Give children ongoing opportunities to ask questions and to talk about their loss. Create large and small rituals of remembrance, and to honor the deceased and help them keep them alive in your child's heart. As the months go by, make a point of mentioning the lost loved one's name in conversation when appropriate. Don't insist that your child grieve when he or she is trying to be happy, but don't act as if the loss didn't happen, either.
Be aware that children grieve differently from adults. They need rituals that offer safe space for grieving, and then a defined end point so they can play again and go on with their lives without guilt.
The kids who successfully live through loss are the ones who find ways to feel connected to the person they've lost AND to go on with their lives. Even children experiencing severe losses need time off from grief. They need safe space, such as school, where they will not be reminded of their loss and can forget for a time. They need to hear that we are there for them when they want to talk, and they need us to normalize talking about the loss, but they also need our permission to go on with their lives.
About the author:
Dr. Laura Markham is both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones. Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.AhaParenting.com (formerly www.YourParentingSolutions.com) and serves as parenting expert for Mothering.com, Storknet.com, HipSlopeMama.com and Pregnancy.org. She is the mother of two teenagers and lives in New York. Dr. Laura Markham sounds two clear themes in her advice to parents. The first is that parenting effectively always depends on our connection to our kids. Without that connection, we have little influence ("My kids won't listen!") and parenting becomes an exhausting task. Her other theme is that when we feel good, we're better parents. Quite simply, we can only give what we have inside. That's why her daily parenting inspiration emails support parents in taking better care of ourselves and managing our own emotions.
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