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HEALING THE LOSS: Supporting children experiencing loss

Children cope differently depending on age and level of understanding. 123RF
Children cope differently depending on age and level of understanding. 123RF - Contributed

A new school year has begun, which means new teachers, classmates and experiences. It’s transition time from lazy and unstructured, to routines and expectations.

For many kids, their lives have changed over the summer. Perhaps they moved or a friend moved, they may have lost a pet, a grandparent or relative may have died, their parents may be going through a separation or divorce or tragically, one of their siblings or a parent may have died suddenly or from a long illness.

Children cope with loss in varied ways depending on their age and level of understanding. What can be explained to a 15 year old may not be understood by a young child or even a seven, 10 or 12 year old. Just as with adults, children respond to loss in a multitude of complex ways.

There are so many misunderstood things about grief and loss and ways to handle them, within yourself and with loved ones. When a child goes to school, their classmates, teachers and guidance counsellors may all have differing ideas of what to do.

Hopefully, their parent has contacted the school, informed the teacher and other staff of the loss the student is experiencing. The teacher needs to be aware that grief can manifest in many physical ways such as: lack of concentration, emotions all over the place — from crying to anger to sullen to happy — and isolation can occur when the child is feeling like no one understands. Reactions can include not feeling well, wanting to stay home where it feels safe and in older kids, unheard grief can become a reason for not participating, closing up, using drugs or alcohol to cope and on it goes.

The child’s parent may be grieving the loss themselves. Let’s use the example that one of the parents has died. Home may not be a happy and supportive place because the other parent is in shock. The parent is grieving the loss of their spouse and trying to cope on their own within the new role of being a single parent, and all of the responsibilities, changes and loss that entails. It is absolutely debilitating. The parent needs loving, supportive people in their life, people that can stick around for the long haul, not just the first year and really put their support into action, by helping in concrete ways.

The child will learn how to grieve from the adults. If every time a parent becomes emotional and sad and withdraws so the children do not see them grieve, the children will learn to hide their grief. They will learn that it is not OK to be sad in the face of this huge loss.

Parents, explain the loss as best you can in terms the child will understand. If there has been a death, please use the word “died” and explain honestly, avoiding euphemisms such as “gone,” “passed on,” “lost.” Instead of playing the role of both parents, try to be as fully present as you can when you are with your children, talk about the parent who died; share, laugh, cry and bond. Kids may also just want to play and know that you are around. That is fine as well. You do not need to force them to understand grief; it is a difficult and lifelong process. What you do need to do is acknowledge the grief. Validate it, for yourself and your children.

As they say in airplane safety brochures: “Put your own mask on before assisting others.” When you are taking care of yourself in this tragic time — which can mean resting, asking for help and expressing your grief, then your kids will know and be reassured that it is fine for them to express their grief as well.

When a child’s beloved pet has died, it is usually their first experience of loss and grief. It is best to acknowledge and validate the loss to the child, without saying, “that’s OK, we can just get another dog,” as though the relationship was of little value and meaning. Your child needs to express how much this hurts, how hard it is to understand and that it is OK to take all the time needed. You as the adult know that someday they may be ready to love another pet.

Another smaller example taken from the Grief Recovery Method is of a young girl having a birthday party. Lots of children are there, and there is great fun and excitement. Yet the girl is staring out the window looking for her best friend who did not come. The parent says to the girl, “look at all the other kids here, get out there, have fun, don’t be silly and ruin this over one friend,” yet the girl remains sad. A kind adult comes up and says to the girl, “you must be very sad that your best friend could not come to your birthday,” and the young girl says, “yes, I miss her and I wanted her to be here, but there are lots of balloons and other friends, I am going to go play now.” What happened there? The young girl’s sadness was acknowledged and validated. After that simple acknowledgement, she could get on with her day and have a lovely time at party.

That is what it is all about. For parents, for the teachers and counsellors at school — acknowledge and validate; this loss happened to you. I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it? How can I support you? What would you like me to tell your classmates?

Minimizing the loss, comparing the loss to others or ignoring and not validating the loss, sets us all up for a lifetime of sadness and confusion. Grief has to go somewhere. If left unacknowledged and unheard, it will manifest in unpleasant ways down the road.

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