How to Help a Grieving Child
This has been a tough week in the small community that I live in. This past Friday a 14 year old boy was hit and killed on his way into school. The accident happened at the school entrance. Some of the students, teachers, administrators, and parents witnessed this accident. Even for those who did not, it has been difficult to return to school passing the site of his death each morning.
Most of us are familiar with the five stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining (What if stage), Depression, and Acceptance. Most people will go through each stage at some point. Not everyone goes through these in the same order, or spends the same amount of time processing each stage. Some may even revisit a stage if circumstances do not allow them to fully process that stage initially. How close your grieving child was to the person who passed away may impact the order and time spent in each stage. Also, if this is your child’s first experience with death, it may be more difficult for them to process their feelings.
Many parents have expressed how heartbreaking it is to see our children hurting so much without knowing how to help them. I was among those parents. After consulting several counselors, I compiled some suggestions for helping a grieving child cope.
Of course, exercise is always important, but it can be especially helpful during a time of grief. Exercise can be a way of letting out the stress that builds when you are angry or depressed. It also helps with sleep, which can be difficult when the brain wants to play the blame game or work out what ifs every time you get still.
Eating healthy also contributes to our body’s ability to handle stress effectively. It is not uncommon for us to want to binge on junk foods that will give our body a short lived high, but contribute to depression and sleep disturbances in the long run. It is important to monitor sugar and avoid processed foods more closely during this time. This is especially true if you have a child who has struggled with an eating disorder of any kind. Be aware that even though you may have rebuilt trust in regards to foods, this could trigger a setback. Encourage honesty and maintain open communication without accusations.
Teenagers typically enjoy music and it can be very helpful in the grief process. Often they know their loved one’s favorite songs or genres. Creating a playlist of their music may help them remember the good times and celebrate their life. Teenagers may feel the need to cry, but they are so busy trying to be okay that it just does not happen for them. Let them know that it is perfectly okay to not cry, but if this is really bothersome to them suggesting that they spend time alone, being still, and listening to their loved one’s music may help them release pent up emotions.
Relaxing music can be helpful for a grieving child with those sleepless nights. Generally, we ask our kids to turn things off and get settled for a good night of sleep. In a time of distress, the brain may need help staying in a relaxed state for sleep. Creating a playlist of softer music and allowing them to fall asleep listening to this music will help the brain focus on something other than the hurt.
Journaling is another good way to help a grieving child process emotion. Give them a journal that is for their eyes only. Tell them that you will not read their journal. It will be up to them to decide if they want to share their writing with you. Suggest that they write diary entries, poems, or draw pictures in it. If they say that they do not know what to write, suggest that they sit down for 30 seconds and just write whatever words come into their mind. It does not matter if they make sense. They may find that through that process they begin writing full entries without even thinking about it. If that does not happen, they may look back at the words and find some meaning in their random thoughts. On the other hand, after 30 seconds they may look at it and still think “I’ve got nothing here.” That is okay too. Try it. If it works, great. If it does not, do not stress about it.
Mandalas are a good way to relieve stress and refocus the brain. These are circular, mostly abstract, pictures that you color. Starting in the middle of the picture and coloring out of the mandala helps to open your mind up. If your brain is stuck on a repetitive thought that you know is illogical, but it just does not want to let go, this is a good technique for opening the mind up to the bigger picture. Starting from the outside and working your way into the middle helps to focus the brain. During those times when your thoughts are all over the place and just will not slow down, this is a good way to gain some focus and calm the mind. You can search the internet to find many free printable mandalas.
When a loved one passes away suddenly, we can feel like we were robbed of time. It is easy to wish that we had more time to say all the things we did not get a chance to say. Writing a letter to the person who passed away can help with this. Suggest that they tell their loved one how much they meant to them, tell them some of their favorite things about their loved one, or how much they miss them.
When it is a friend from school who passes away, your child may not have had an opportunity to know their friend’s parents and family. However, their school relationship could have meant a lot to your child. Writing a letter to their friend’s family explaining how much this friendship meant to them can help your child celebrate their friend’s life. The added benefit to this is that the grieving family will be reminded that, although their child’s life was cut short, it meant something on this earth.
Teens today are very technical and creative on the internet. Encourage them to create a collage or pictorial video to post on social media honoring their loved one. This is a way to share their grief with others who also miss them. It can help open up conversations in a way that is relatable to this generation.
Above all else, continue to remind your grieving child to talk about it. Make yourself available. Just as your child may not have known their friend’s parents, you may not have known the person they lost. Remember that just because you did not know their friend, does not mean that they suffer any less than if their friend had been your next door neighbor. Give them all the time they need to grieve. Be patient. It is very easy to slip back into your busy schedule, while they are still hurting. They may feel like you are leaving them behind when your life goes on and they are stuck in the grieving process.
Remind them that other kids may not grieve in the same way they do. Your child may get upset with someone at school who is grieving differently, if they do not understand this. Kids like to feel connected, so a child who was not really that close to the person may suddenly claim to have been their best friend. This can easily upset a child who truly was their friend.
It is very easy for grieving children to argue more easily, even getting into physical fights. If a friend who was bullied at school passes away, others may harshly turn on the bully. Explain to your child that it is best to seek an adult to talk to, rather than get into a fight at school. Make sure they understand that suspensions for fighting stay on their record forever and can impact their future. Do not a let a bully steal your future, even if you feel like they had a role in stealing your friend’s future.
Even if your child appears to be fine, check in with them every once in a while. Let them know that you are there for them. Also, remind them of school resources, such as school counselors. If you feel they need additional help, do not hesitate to contact a therapist. Many schools have contracts with counseling services and may be able to arrange for your child to speak with a therapist for free during school hours. Ask your child’s teachers, principal, and counselors for help. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that as long as the school is not contacting you, then everything is okay. While they are with your child most days, they do not know your child like you do. If you feel that your child needs help, ask for it.
Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful. Please comment with any suggestions that you may have. You never know when you may help someone else with a simple comment.