PARENT’S GUIDE TO HELPING CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS WITH GRIEF AND LOSS
Parents serve a very critical role when their child experiences grief and loss. The parent needs to be a strong role model, a permission giver, and a support figure. Honesty, love, patience, and understanding will help resolve the child’s grief and instill a healthy perspective about death.
1. Questions about death should be answered simply and directly. Honesty is critical.
2. The death should be explained to the child to their level of understanding. Metaphors about plants or animals are most helpful for younger children.
3. Be sensitive to the differences between adults and children:
• Children lack adult means for resolving conflict
• Children have less opportunity to leave an unbearable situation
• Children are more likely to rely on symbolism (drawing, writing, etc.) to describe their feelings of loss
4. Healthy ways of grieving should be modeled by the parent sharing some of their own feelings.
5. Give the child time and opportunity to talk about their feelings. Listen carefully, do not interrupt or censor. Be accepting and nonjudgmental.
6. Avoid euphemisms like
passed away, or making references to sleep or long journeys. These can be confusing to children and cause fear.
7. Create opportunities for the child to vent emotions, including anger, guilt, and despair. A child should not be discouraged from crying, nor should they be told to display unfelt or uncomfortable emotions.
8. Signs that a child may require professional help:
• Denies or pretends that nothing happened
• Dramatic decline in school performance
• Develops phobias or unrealistic fears or has panic attacks
• Engages in socially delinquent acts
• Isolates self
• Dramatic or prolonged changes in appetite, sleep patterns, or energy level
• Uninterested in life
• Threatens suicide
Elizabeth Levang, Ph.D. Copyright 1997
COPING TIPS FOR GRIEF AND LOSS
All of us respond to grief differently. Yet grief is a universal human experience; a normal reaction when someone we care about dies. Grief is a sign of our love. If we had no concern, nor empathy or compassion, we would feel nothing. When we grieve, letting our emotions and pain permeate our spirit, we demonstrate the depth of our love. Our tears, sadness, sorrow, anger, fear, guilt, and overwhelming pain remind us of this. Oftentimes, the pain and anguish we feel is foreign and unimaginable. Sadly, there are no magical answers, nor a way to gauge the time it takes to heal.
To cope with grief we need to:
ACKNOWLEDGE OUR PAIN
• Talk about your feelings. Find at least one person to confide in, someone who will listen without passing judgment. Talk often.
• Letting others know how we feel increases the likelihood of getting our needs met.
• Expecting others to read our mind never works!
EXPRESS OUR FEELINGS
• Let your feelings out. Only by setting our feelings free can they find resolution. Crying, beating on pillows, vigorous exercise, painting, or writing are all constructive ways to express feelings. Only by letting the hurt out will we make room for healing.
• Accept that you have the right to grieve for as long and as hard as you need to.
PROCESS OUR FEELINGS
• Resolve to
roll with the tide. Do not let yourself or others censor or measure your feelings, or put you on a rigid time schedule.
• Encourage and support a survival attitude in yourself. Be optimistic and do not give up on yourself.
• Be willing to seek help. Sometimes being strong means asking for help. There are times when seeking therapy is the most courageous and responsible thing we can do for ourselves and our family.
• Expect set backs. It’s normal to experience a mix of good days and bad days.
Elizabeth Levang, Ph.D.
COPING WITH GUILT
Guilt is both a source of challenge and a vicious poison. Guilt sours our daily pleasures and leaves us feeling angry with ourselves. It can paralyze us with indecision, inertia, or fear. Yet guilt also deepens our self-understanding. It prompts us to try to do better the next time around. It can also teach us to separate the trivia from the treasures, to recognize which things we hold most dear. Guilt never feels good, but it often leads to good.
• Try to understand your guilt. What did you say, do, or decide that caused you to feel guilty? Be truthful. Try writing out your thoughts and feelings.
• Recognize that guilt results from breaking the rules or standards we set for our self. Feeling guilty means we have let ourselves down, and perhaps those around us.
• Talk over your feelings of guilt with a trusted friend, family member, or professional who will listen without judging. Talk until you feel ready to let go of your guilt.
• Grieve. We need to grieve the past we cannot change, grieve over the haunting memories, and say good-bye to what will never be. By facing the pain we can stop running away and, ultimately, find healing.
• Remember that you do not have the power to control every aspect of your life, let alone the life of those you love. No matter how hard we try, there will be times in our lives when things go wrong, terribly wrong. Recognize your legitimate limitations. • Clarify your intentions. Ask yourself:
With the information and resources I had at the time, did I do the best I could? Guilt needs to be examined in its true light.
• Forgive yourself. This may be one of the hardest tasks you face in grief. Forgiveness is a slow process of letting go, healing the hurt behind the feelings, and reconciling our behavior with our standards. Make a promise not be overly harsh on yourself.
• Seek forgiveness. It may feel necessary to seek forgiveness from those you hurt. Face this task with courage and a contrite heart.
If you feel incapable of resolving your guilt or if it is overwhelming, you need to be willing to seek professional counseling. Good therapy can bring you objectivity, clarity and relief.
Elizabeth Levang, Ph.D.