• Healing Little Hearts: Helping Kids Grieve

    IMAGE Whether they are dealing with the death of a family member or of a beloved pet, kids can and do feel the loss as deeply as adults. Parents, though, often do not know how to help their children grieve.
    In fact, by pushing to "make it better," or by urging their kids to "just smile," moms and dads can actually do harm, says Julie Stanick, MEd, coordinator for the Horizons Children's Loss Program in Florida.
    "If [the grief process] is stifled, if it is suppressed, it will come out five, six, seven years later," possibly through behaviors such as the use of drugs or alcohol, she says.
    Although grief is an individual journey, adults can help children in the following ways:

    Let Kids Grieve Like Kids

    Kids and adults grieve differently, says Angela Hamblen, CMSW, bereavement specialist with Baptist Trinity Hospice in Memphis, which sponsors Camp Good Grief, a children's bereavement program.
    "Children do their grieving in spurts. They can only tolerate and handle the intensity [of their feelings] for a short period of time," Hamblen says. As a result, kids may swing from playfulness to despair in a matter of minutes. Give them room for their full range of feelings.

    Be Supportive, Yet Non-intrusive

    While it is important to let children know you are available, do it in a way that lets them be in control of when and how they share their feelings.
    "Follow the child's lead," suggests Linda Goldman, grief therapist, educator and author of several books on grieving, including Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children .

    Help Kids Identify Their Emotions

    Because of their limited experience with grief, children may not even have the vocabulary to convey their many emotions, including sadness, anger, fear, and helplessness. Goldman says one of the most helpful things an adult can do is to give names to what the child is feeling.

    Give Age-Appropriate Information

    What you tell a preschooler about her grandmother's death is likely to be different from what you share with a teenager. But whatever you do, "Tell the truth at all times," recommends John McLoughlin, support service assistant for Stella Maris Hospice in Maryland.

    Look for External Support Systems

    Contact your child's school, a local hospice, religious institution, or university for referrals to children's programs. Your pediatrician can also advise you on how to share appropriate information with your child.

    Expect Your Child to Regress

    Kids, especially younger ones, can experience developmental setbacks, so do not be surprised if your child goes back to thumb sucking or bedwetting, says Hamblen. Extra attention can help your child feel more secure.

    Be Aware of Danger Signs

    While sleeplessness, anxiety , sadness, and lack of interest in friends and activities are common symptoms of grief, at their extreme they may indicate a more severe problem. Seek professional assistance if these symptoms continue to worsen or do not improve after a month or two.

    Avoid Common Clichés Related to Death

    Though you may be tempted to sugarcoat your explanations of what happened to your daughter's hamster, be careful of the phrases you use.
    "Children think in literal terms," says McLoughlin. Therefore, saying Fluffy "went to sleep" may make your child afraid to close her eyes at night, for fear that she, too, will not wake up. Also avoid poetic, though hard to grasp, concepts like "going to be with God" and "the angels took her away."

    Do Not Be Afraid to Show Your Own Feelings of Grief

    A loss for your child likely means a loss for you, too. Do not hesitate to show your own grief. In fact, a family cry can be a great way to bond with your children and share feelings and memories. Sometimes just knowing that it is okay to feel sad is enough to help a child feel better.

    Do Not Expect Kids to "Get Over It"

    Grief is a process that is different for every person. Some children may take longer to heal than others, or experience more ups and downs, and that is okay.
    "Every child is unique, and so is [his or her] grief," says Goldman.

    RESOURCES

    American Psychological Association http://www.apa.org/

    Mental Health America http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

    CANADIAN RESOURCES

    Canadian Mental Health Association http://www.ontario.cmha.ca/index.asp

    Canadian Psychological Association http://www.cpa.ca/

    References

    Goldman L. Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children . Hemisphere Publishing; 2000.

    GriefNet website. Available at: http://griefnet.org

    GrowthHouse website. Available at: http://www.growthhouse.org

    Zotovich KD. Good Grief for Kids . Journalkeepers Publishing; 2000.

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