Grief: Helping Children Cope

Thirteen-year-old Ashley Nedrebo was sleeping in her room with her dog, Cody, when he starting whining and woke her up. She got up to let him out, and when she opened the door, she saw her mom and sister and several of her aunts all standing in the hallway crying.

“Oh, crap,” she thought to herself.

And then her mom said, “There was an accident with your dad…he passed away in a car accident this morning.”

Ashley fell to her knees, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed.

The next thing she remembers is sitting on a chair in the living room, watching “Quantum Leap” on TV and wishing she could go back in time to change what happened.

Sixteen years later, the memories of that tragic day and the events that followed are vivid in Ashley’s memory. “I remember the funeral and the people who were there, what he was wearing and what he looked like. I remember thinking he wasn’t dead. That he was going to sit up and start talking. He just looked like he was sleeping,” Ashley says.

And then began the grieving process which reminded Ashley over and over that her dad wasn’t coming back.

Just as death is a fact of life, it’s a fact of life that children grieve. Alan Wofelt, author of “Companioning the Grieving Child,” says, “any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn.”

Ashley was 13 when her dad died, and fortunately her mother was open to talking about her father’s death and helping Ashley grieve. But many of us prefer to avoid grief. Wendy Tabor Buth, bereavement supervisor with Hospice of the Red River Valley, says we love to talk about the birth of beautiful babies, but we don’t like to talk about death, which is also a natural part of life.

“We are like a drive-through society. Things happen, we see a need, we meet it, and then we go on. We want to do that with our grief. We want to be over and done with it,” says Tabor Buth.

Adults especially want to do that with children because they see their role as that of protector. They want to shield children from pain, when the best way to help them mourn the loss of someone they love is to walk beside them as they move through the pain.

Grieving at Every Age

How children grieve varies depending on the child’s age, personality, and circumstances.

Infants and toddlers may not understand death, but they do know that someone is missing from their world. And they sense the grief of the people around them. They may cry more than usual, sleep more or less, or change their eating patterns.

Like infants and toddlers, older children may not understand the finality of death, but they understand that something has changed. Fear is a common grief reaction for children. “For kids, that scared feeling comes from, ‘What if this happens to someone else close to me? If this happened to my grandma, can it happen to my mom or dad?’” says Tabor Buth.

This fear often makes children clingy or revert to previous behaviors like wetting the bed, wanting to sleep with their parents, or being afraid to be away from their parents.

Teenagers grieve much like adults by feeling sadness, guilt, and regret. Yet grief is complicated in teenagers because adolescence is already such a confusing and chaotic time in their lives.

In her book, “Parenting a Grieving Child,” Mary DeTurris Poust says, “Teenagers often withdraw, pretend they are not affected, and act as though death cannot touch them. Those feelings of immortality and that attitude of disinterest can carry them through the early days or months of grief—but eventually, everything catches up with them. They soon realize that even they must stop to grieve and find a way to learn to live within a new kind of framework.”

Because teenagers understand death, they are more frightened than younger children, says Julie Hersch, school counselor at West Fargo High School. Death makes teens aware of their own mortality. It makes them curious and changes the way they think about life, positive or negative.

“Some kids think, ‘Why bother because I’m just going to die anyway?’” says Hersch. “Others see this as an opportunity to look at where they’ve been and where they want to be.”

Unfortunately, Hersch is all too familiar with grieving teenagers. Death was a pervasive theme of West Fargo’s 2012-2013 school year. A student lost her baby to crib death in the fall, and then the school community lost five students. “We also had several parent deaths,” Hersch says. “It just never quit.”

Hersch says the most important thing she learned during this tragic year is that teenagers want adults to be a part of their lives. “Sometimes kids push parents away because they feel like they don’t understand,” she says. “Yes, they are finding their independence, but they need adult supervision and parameters. When kids don’t have that, their lives are a mess.” And when their lives are a mess, their ability to deal with death is compromised.

Even when adults are there for their kids, the journey through grief is not without detours and dead ends along the way. A few years after her father died, Ashley started using drugs. “I felt like I was escaping and didn’t have to deal with the fact that my dad wasn’t there. When I was high, I didn’t have to think about it and I was happy.”

Walking with Your Child Through Grief

You won’t be able to protect your children from the sadness and confusion that accompanies grief, but you can walk beside them as they go through it. Here are some tips for facilitating the grieving process for your children.

Help children understand what happened. Poust says, “It is up to us parents to help them make sense of the chaos and to give them the basic information they need to process the event. Tell them the truth and don’t use confusing terms for death. You don’t need to give them the gory details about the death, but you have to give them the true story. Ninety-nine percent of the time they know the real story anyway. Not telling them the truth breaks your trust with them.”

Failing to talk about what really happened impacted Kay Bradlich’s mother, Audrey, her entire life. When Audrey was 12 years old, she came down the stairs one morning to find her father in a coffin in the middle of the living room. Audrey’s mother gave her no information about how he died. Bradlich says of Audrey, “She found out later he died of cirrhosis of the liver and was a disgrace to the family. In her eyes, he walked on water. To keep this from her was very unsettling and bothered her until the day she died.”

Kriston Wenzel, bereavement specialist at Hospice of the Red River Valley, suggests you ask children to tell you what they know, and then fill in the missing details in terms they can understand.

“Adults who are willing to talk openly about the death help children understand that grief is a natural feeling when someone loved has died,” Wofelt says. “Children need adults to confirm that it’s all right to be sad and cry, and that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever.”

Maintain a routine. Regardless of their age, children need to be able to fall back on familiar routines. This won’t always be easy, especially at the beginning when you’re preparing for the funeral and family and friends are coming and going. But get back to a routine as soon as possible.

Also continue to enforce your family rules. Sometimes parents feel bad for their children, especially if they’ve lost their other parent, so they become more flexible. And some kids will take advantage of this, Wenzel says. “It’s really easy to give in, but structure and rules are so important to keeping kids on balance.”

Allow children to attend the funeral. Don’t force them to attend, but give them the option and if the person who died is close to them, involve them in the preparations as much as possible. Sonja Kjar, Grief Support Coordinator, Boulger Funeral Home, says that even if there are tears and extreme sadness, it probably won’t be as hard for your children as you may think, and it will give you something to talk about later.

Rituals are an important part of grief, and Kjar believes it’s important for kids and adults to have some sort of closing ritual. “They are part of the family, and I think the more present they are, the better,” Kjar says.

The ways to involve kids in the funeral are as endless as your imagination. Older children can write something to read at the funeral, or give it to an adult to read. Young children might want to draw pictures and put them in the casket. Maybe the grandchildren have a favorite song and want to sing at the funeral.

If the opportunity arises, Kjar encourages parents to take children to the funeral of someone who wasn’t super close to them. “It’s a great opportunity to expose them to those situations where it’s not highly emotional for them or their parents.”

Steve Wright, owner of Wright Funeral Home, says, “When you suffer a loss, your instinct is to pull the covers over your head and make everyone go away. But I see time and time again how people gain great strength from community coming together around them. Putting their arms around them, lifting them up, and carrying them. That is just as true for kids as it is adults.”

Give children the freedom to grieve in their own time and their own way. Kids, especially young kids, instinctively know they can’t handle all the pain at once, so they often experience it in bursts. They feel sad and cry, and then they go out and play like nothing has happened. Parents worry about their children when they do this, but grief experts assure parents that children will grieve as much as they need to, as long as they are allowed to do so.

In some cases, children will need to redefine who they are now that their loved one is no longer present. Tasha Haug was 3 when her older sister, Tanya, died. According to her mother, Kay Bradlich, Tasha’s personality completely changed after Tanya’s death. Bradlich shares, “Tasha was totally dominated by her older sister. She didn’t even talk until after Tanya’s death. Then she started talking, and talked until she was hoarse. She took over helping me and was so nurturing—she wasn’t that way before Tanya died.”

Kay worried that Tasha was growing up too fast, but she talked to a child psychologist who told her she was doing the right thing by talking about Tanya, having her picture up, and leaving the door open for Tasha to talk about her if and when she was ready.

If your children don’t want to talk about the death, don’t force them. Tabor Buth says, “Grieving is so different and individual. Some people cry when they are sad. Someone else will have the same loss and they don’t cry. It doesn’t mean they are grieving wrong, just that they are grieving differently. All you can do is present little openings for them to talk.”

Find ways for your children to commemorate the person who died. Ashley’s mother put together a memory book for each of her children filled with pictures of them with their dad. “She also gave us angel necklaces,” Ashley says, “and then we put a matching necklace in the coffin with my dad.”

Hospice gives out memory books filled with prompts and suggestions for remembering the person who died. It includes places to write things like why the person was special to them and what they miss about them, as well as places to draw pictures of the things that remind them of their loved one. You can also buy a scrapbook, or just staple together a bunch of pieces of paper to make a book, and help your children decorate and make their own.

Don’t be afraid to cry in front of your children. How you grieve will teach your children what is acceptable and what’s not. Wenzel talks to parents all the time who don’t want to cry in front of their children because it may make them sad. “But then I talk to the kids and they tell me they hear their mom or dad crying in the bedroom at night.”

“If you feel like you’re going to have a huge breakdown to where it’s out of control, maybe leave the room,” Tabor Buth says. “But otherwise it’s okay to show your tears.”

Reassure kids that it’s okay to cry by saying to them something like, “I might start crying when we talk about this, but that’s okay.” They are more apt to be comfortable crying in front of you if they’ve seen you cry.

When a Child’s Pet Dies

Kay Bradlich experienced a lot of runaway dogs and cats in her childhood—only to find out later they had died and her mother was trying to protect her by telling her they ran away. Other parents get a new pet right away so their children are distracted from mourning. Still others actually replace the pet in hopes that their children won’t know the difference. (Obviously this would be tough to do with a dog or cat, but it might work with a gerbil or a fish!)

Whether it works or not, grief experts don’t recommend trying to shield our children from the death of their pets. Losing a pet is often the first introduction children have to death, and it can set the tone for their comfort with death and grieving throughout their lives.

Kriston Wenzel, Hospice of the Red River Valley, says allowing our children to grieve the little losses, like losing a pet or not making the sports team, will affect their ability to accept and grieve the significant losses they will inevitably face.

So when your pet dies, be honest with your children and allow them to grieve its loss. The loss of a pet is a good place to start learning about the circle of life and death—and to practice the grieving that goes with it.

When it’s Time to Seek Professional Help

Watch for changes in your child’s behavior to determine if they need professional help to get through the grieving process. Are they eating? How are they sleeping at night? How are their grades? Have they shown any difference in how they are interacting, or not interacting, with friends? In addition to these things, Hersch says in teens to watch for self-destructive behaviors like drugs, alcohol, cutting, risk-taking, driving too fast, and acting like they feel invincible.

If you have any concerns about your child, Hospice of the Red River Valley provides individual and group support for all families, whether they were involved with Hospice during a loved one’s illness or not. For Hospice families, the support is ongoing as long as they need it. For people in the community who were not served by Hospice, they will provide short-term individual counseling, and refer them on if they feel they need support beyond three or four sessions.

Ashley says her mother enrolled all three children in a Hospice group and it was the best thing she could have ever done. “My friends kind of looked at me differently and treated me differently. It was nice to be around people going through the same thing. They taught us that the feelings we were having were normal and helped us talk about those feelings.”

When Ashley was getting high and hanging out with the wrong group of friends, the love and support of her mother and the things she learned through Hospice remained in the back of her mind. Then one day, after witnessing a horrible fight, she realized she wasn’t living the life she wanted to live. “I was letting everyone in my life down,” Ashley said. “I woke up and decided I was done with that life. I didn’t like who I was becoming. It just wasn’t me.”

A New Normal

Death may be an event, but the grief that follows is a process—a process that continues for the rest of a person’s life. It’s not something you can be over and done with, and life will never go back to how it was before the death. Through grieving, children learn to adjust to a world without their loved one.

When a child loses a loved one, they not only lose the person, they also lose their vision of the future with that person in it. Wenzel says to think about the things that person did for your child when they were alive to understand how their life has been impacted by the loss. Were they the person who tucked them in every night? Or played catch with them? Or took them to the park?

“Let your children know you are trying to understand how they feel about all the things they have lost. And that you don’t know what they are feeling, but that you understand it won’t ever be the same,” says Wenzel.

When it’s a parent, the big events of their lives may always be a little bittersweet. Even though she lost her dad when she was 13, Ashley certainly thought about him the day she was married and he wasn’t there to walk her down the aisle. Also on the day her son was born, he wasn’t there to be a proud grandpa.

“You just have to keep going, keep walking, keep expressing your feelings, and learn how to live without this person in your life,” Ashley says.

Tammy Noteboom is the Director of Communications for The Village Family Service Center and lives in Rollag, Minn., with her husband.


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