It’s been a while coming. My husband left four years ago, but he only recently filed for divorce. On the one hand, it’s nice for legality to catch up to reality. On the other, for my children who have been living in limbo, this concrete finish reopens deep wounds. And, adds new pain. So, like many parents, I’m wondering how to comfort grieving children.
Like most parents, I envision childhood as a magical period where life is always good. Always protected. Always secure. Yet, childhood has never fulfilled this vision. Every generation has faced losses—war, poverty, migration, death, or famine. Whether immigrant children separated from parents, school children without a secure place to learn, or home-bound children dealing with illness—children experience loss. How can parents help?
Experts offer a variety of tips. A few include:
Listen without judging. Too many of us define listening as, “Getting a response ready.” For grieving people, often the last thing they want is a response. Someone to say words to “fix” them so everyone can move on. Instead, children just want someone to listen. In my undergraduate psychology training, one wise professor offered, “People grieve because they have suffered a deep loss. Don’t rob them again by taking away their right to grieve.”
All this can hard for parents who see our job as fixing life for our children. We want to offer words that make everything right. But, often we can’t. Instead, we can be present. We can sit and hold and listen. We can allow our child to vent his deep anger or hurt without judging. Often, simply saying the feelings out loud diminishes their power. More, it allows our child to gain context and perspective—which then allows him to move through his grief. If children get stuck in feelings, we can ask questions or guide to help them gain context. But, we don’t have to fix it.
Tell the truth. Lack of information increases grief. So, whenever possible, answer children’s questions openly and honestly—with developmentally appropriate details. If Grandma is sick, give children the truth. For a toddler, one might say, “Grandma won’t be with us much longer, so we are going to spend more time at her house.” An older child might need to know the diagnosis and basic treatment plan. A teen may want to be involved in Grandma’s care.
Sometimes parents hide hard truths—believing innocence is bliss. But, children are smart. They know when something is up. Worse—if we aren’t honest, they will make up their own version of what is going on. Usually a far worse version than the truth. It’s far more caring to be open with our children and then to equip them to move through the difficult time as a family. When we do, we experience an unexpected blessing. Loss often forges the strongest family bonds. But, only if we work together. Telling the truth lays the foundation for working together. While I won’t share the details of our marital issues with my children, I will share the changes we will need to make and the plans for going forward. Then, we will figure it out—together.
Offer choices—and equip children to make them. Loss makes people feel powerless. Giving choices empowers children and lessens grief’s grip. Children may have no choice about their pet dying, but children can decide where to bury or what kind of marker for the grave. They can choose bedroom paint colors for a required move to a new house or what electives they will take in a new school.
When choices overwhelm, pare the options down. Offer two gravesite possibilities or five paint colors. If a child rejects the offered options, parents can ask what she liked and didn’t like about the to help her define her expectations and find a path that lets her take some control in a situation that may feel out-of-control.
Seeing children grieve breaks a parent’s heart. While we can’t stop it, we can provide critical support to help our child cope and move forward. As we do, we become part of life’s process in building our children into strong, capable adults—ready to take whatever life delivers.