There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love. ~Washington Irving
No one’s childhood is without some sadness and loss. This can be from bullying or even just moving to a new town can leave a child grieving the loss of their school and childhood friends no matter how old they are. You can do your best to protect your child, but there’s only so much you can do.
Then what happens when your spouse — your child’s parent — passes away? This loss is absolutely devastating to the entire family. You will struggle over the loss for a long time, but you’re an adult. You have some skills and structures needed to process and handle the grief.
Your child isn’t so lucky. Even though you are dealing with your own grief, you have to help them through this difficult period. Read on for some tips on helping your child get through the grieving process.
How Children Grieve
The Spruce explains children typically go through four stages of grief. They start by feeling shocked and numb. Your child can look a little sad but otherwise normal because they need time to accept what happened. Then your child can face the searching stage where they act angry and guilty. During the disorientation stage, the death sinks in and your child becomes disinterested. Finally, they will reach a resolution on the death and begin to rebound.
One of the biggest difficulties in these four stages is guilt. Many children irrationally feel guilty over the death as if they had something to do with it. Even if they don’t blame themselves, they can obsess over what they could have done differently. Your child will likely struggle over “what ifs” as they go through those four stages.
What You Can Do
Then what can you do to help your child get through these stages of grief? First, remember that you can help your child while taking care of your needs. If you devote yourself solely to your child, you’ll quickly burn out — and that won’t help anyone.
To help your child, one of the best things you can do is, to be honest. Don’t try to cushion the blow by saying something like “gone to sleep,” as that will either confuse your child or make them fear sleep. Kids are more aware than most adults realize, so be truthful about the death.
When it comes to guilt, the Grief Healing Blog recommends that you focus your child on the good things they did together. Instead of obsessing about a fight they had just before the parent died, help your child remember the silly moments they spent playing and laughing. Older children can also benefit from exploring ways to make amends for any perceived problems.
Developing Coping Mechanisms
As your child starts to process their grief and guilt, you should look out for any unhealthy coping mechanisms. For example, some kids will withdraw into video games to spend time doing something they love. That’s fine, but if it takes over their life, you have to do something.
Older kids (and adults like you) also have to be careful about drug and alcohol use. As The Treehouse explains, you must have a conversation about using intoxicants as early as five years old. While your first-grader isn’t going to buy some vodka at the store, they might have access to some prescriptions in your house. Older kids are at a higher risk, of course, so be honest and clear about the dangers of using drugs and alcohol to feel better — and how intoxicants don’t help in the long run.
The Pain Will Pass
Over time, both you and your child will stop grieving the death of your loved one. But that takes time. By knowing how children grieve, helping get through guilt, and avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms, your child can complete their grieving journey faster — which will help your own journey as well.