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     How to Help a Grieving Child

    Answer the questions they ask, even the hard ones.

    Kids learn by asking questions. When they ask questions about a death, it’s usually a sign that they’re curious about something they don’t understand. As an adult, a couple of the most important things you can do for children is to let them know that all questions are okay to ask, and to answer questions truthfully. Be sensitive to their age and the language they use. No child wants to hear a clinical, adult-sounding answer to their question, but they don’t want to be lied to either. Often the hardest time to be direct is right after a death. When a child asks what happened, use concrete words such as “died” or “killed” instead of vague terms like “passed away.” A young child who hears his mother say, “Dad passed away” or, “I lost my husband,” may be expecting that his father will return or simply needs to be found.

    Talk about and remember the person who died.

    Remembering the person who died is part of the healing process. One way to remember is simply to talk about the person who died. It’s okay to use his/her name and to share what you remember. Bringing up the name of the person who died is one way to give the child permission to share his or her feelings about the deceased. It reminds the child that it is not “taboo” to talk about the deceased. Sharing a memory has a similar effect. It also reminds the child that the person who died will continue to “live on” and impact the lives of those left behind.

    Respect Differences in Grieving Styles

    Children often grieve differently from their parents and siblings. Some children want to talk about the death, while others want to be left alone. Some like to stay busy and others withdraw from all activities and stay home. Younger children may be clingy, whereas teens may prefer to spend time on their own or with peers. Recognizing and respecting that each child grieves in his or her own way is essential to the healing process for a family. Listen to children talk about their feelings and watch their behavior, and you will help clarify and affirm these natural differences.

    Listen without Judgment

    One of the most helpful and healing things we can do for a child is to listen to his or her experiences without jumping into judge, evaluate or fix. Well-meaning adults often try to comfort a child with phrases such as, “I know just how you feel,” or, worse, advice such as “get over it” or “move on.” While our intentions to soothe a grieving child are correct, using such responses negate the child’s own experiences and feelings. If a child says, “I miss my Dad who died,” simply reflect back what you’ve heard, using their words, so they know that they’re being listened to. Use open-ended questions such as “What’s that been like?” or “How is that?” Children are more likely to share their feelings without pressure to respond in a certain way. This is just one way we can validate their experiences and emotions, helping them regain a sense of safety, balance and control.

    Take a Break

    Children grieve in cycles. For example, they may be more inclined to play and divert their focus from the death when the death is recent and adults are grieving intensely. More than adults, children need time to take a break from grief. It is important to know that it’s okay to take a break. Having fun or laughing is not disrespectful to the person who died; this is a vital part of grieving, too.

    Adapted from the book 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child.

    For more information on childhood grief go to http://www.dougy.org