is said that grief is the price we pay for love. How do you grieve? Do
you ignore your losses? Bury the feelings? Stay busy? Talk about them?
Probably you will use the same method with your children. The following
suggestions may help:
- You may want to think about doing things differently with your children
so that they can have a healthy experience. If you express your feelings
and accept support when you need it, your children will learn from your
- We adults are important role models for our children.
- Accept and acknowledge the reality that grief hurts! Don't try to
rescue the child or yourself from the pain hoping that it will go away.
- Grief work is a healing process and it is work.
- At a time of the death and well beyond, children may feel frightened,
insecure, and helpless. They need love, support and structure in their
daily routine. Firm, caring rules should not be abandoned. In fact,
a routine provides that sense of security and stability in, what to
the child may be, a crazy, scary and mixed-up world.
- When children experience a death it is common for them to think about
it happening again, either to themselves or to another important person
in their life. Especially in the case of one parent dying, they often
question who will take care of them if the other parent dies.
- Children need information given to them that they will understand
at their age level. They need an explanation of the cause of death using
the words die and/or dead. In trying to protect our children, we may
use vague terms like going away or asleep. This only adds to their confusion.
Honesty is the best policy.
- Do not tell a child something he or she will have to unlearn. Children
will sense it when something is not true and will be reluctant to trust
an adult who they think is not being truthful.
- Listen to children's responses to your explanations as well as to
the questions they ask. Ask them what they understood; ask for feedback
about your explanations, especially with the older children; and ask
them what they need.
- It is important to listen and respect their feelings and experiences.
Do not close the door to doubt, questioning, and differences of opinion.
- People within the same family will have different ideas, attitudes
and opinions about what happened. This is all right as long as people
have the truth.
- Watch out for kids trying to protect grieving adults by assuming
the caretaker role. Children can be quite supportive. They also seem
to know instinctively that the adults are suffering too and may be reluctant
to make the adults suffer more by being sad themselves.
- Children will often need help in recognizing, naming, accepting,
and expressing feelings. It is helpful to suggest physical or creative
activities. For example, kicking boxes, tearing up paper, writing, painting,
yelling, throwing dishes (preferably ones purchased at a garage sale!).
- Children can learn about death and grief prior to the actual death
of a loved one, e.g. death of a pet - how is this handled? Is the pain
unbearable and the puppy replaced quickly? What does this teach the
child about life and death?
- Share personal religious beliefs carefully. Children may fear or
resent a God that takes to Heaven someone they love and need. This discussion
within the family is very important so the children are not confused
- Realize that a child's grief may be difficult to recognize. Feelings
may be expressed more in behaviour than in words. Helplessness, despair,
fear, and anxiety may be acted out with aggressive behaviour. Sometimes
anger is directed at the safest person, often a surviving parent. It
may not be conscious or rational, but the child may feel that the parent
should have prevented this tragedy. Talking about these feelings openly
usually will mean that the child will work things out.
- Some children may go back to earlier behavior, such as thumb sucking,
bed wetting, and clinging to parents. This is because the earlier time
was a safe time, and when they feel safe again they will no longer feel
the need to do these things.
- Anticipate and discuss possible strains on relationships with family
and other children. Individual family members, and the family as a whole,
most often are establishing a new identity without the person who died.
The other children may be uncomfortable with your child now as they
are forced to think about death when your child is around.
- Reassure children, especially younger ones, that they are not responsible
for the person's death. All people die. Just as thoughts or words cannot
bring the person back from death, so thoughts or words do not cause
- Parents need to know that once death is explained, it is not a closed
subject. The topic will surface at very interesting times.
- Plus, grief lasts longer than anyone expects. Children continue to
deal with grief as they grow and mature. Significant rites of passage,
such as entering school, puberty or graduation, can be triggers for
- It is a good idea to establish lines of communication with everyone
involved with the child. Keep each other informed; for instance, grief
usually causes difficulty in concentrating so school work may be affected.
The balance between understanding the effects of grief and setting realistic
expectations should be discussed with teachers, caregivers and other
- Recognize the importance of rituals. Rituals allow you to channel
your feelings and thoughts into an activity. They can make your feelings
more manageable. It is often helpful to plan something at significant
dates, like during a holiday season or on a birthday. Rituals can take
several forms and can be done individually or as a family. For example,
hanging a special ornament, lighting a candle, or setting aside a special
time to remember.
Copyright 2002 Griefworks BC
excellent archieve of articles on grief!
grief - helping families heal together
There is tremendous diversity in the way we choose to heal from grief.
We each have our own path and gender is, of course, just one of the
many factors involved in the direction that path may take. The question
arises, "How can we honor such diversity within a family unit at a time
of great loss?"
Each person within the family may very well have a different way of
healing themselves. Some persons may have a great need to talk, others
may need to connect their grief with action, while another might be
quietly healing in his or her own private manner. This diversity can
often lead to trouble in the family with barbs being thrown or held
in consciousness about some other family member not grieving in the
The following is meant to get us started in examining some ideas about
healing grief within our family.
My son and I were playing a friendly game of catch. As I tossed him
the ball, I noticed the mitt he was wearing. It had been my father's
baseball glove which he had used when I was in Little League. I remembered
the many times my father had gone to Little League practice and coached
or hit fly balls to us. Sports was not really his forte, but he made
sure to be a part of my life. A scientist and researcher with NASA,
he was a dedicated father who enjoyed spending time with his three children
and involving himself with their separate interests.
Luke, my seven-year-old son, had chosen that particular glove as his
own, perhaps because it was old and very flexible and perhaps due to
its having been his grandfather's. This glove has given us many opportunities
to talk about my father and his death last November.
As we toss the ball back and forth, it is a link into my father and
his history. Luke and I have had many of these conversations, usually
quick and to the point. Luke might make a particularly good catch and
then say it was the glove that helped him with such a spectacular play.
I then might say, "Yeah, that's a special glove. I sure do miss granddaddy."
Luke agrees and points out that he misses his sense of humor; the game
These short interludes serve us both as a way to remember and honor
our pain at the loss of my father, and his grandfather. Healing grief
is a matter of chipping away at the potent feelings over and over again.
Taking small chunks during an activity such as playing catch is certainly
a valid form of healing.
My daughter Julia (13 years old) has a very different way to approach
Julia will approach me and request "special time" meaning we are to
sit and talk about something. She says, "I miss Granddaddy," and proceeds
to talk of her feelings of loss. She already has the agenda and will
happily orchestrate the conversation. This too, is a valid form of healing.
A part of the reason for the difference between Julia and Luke is their
age. Julia is more developed physically / psychologically and has a
more sophisticated understanding of her emotions. But there is also
a difference that has to do with gender. Luke loves to do things and
maybe talk some while we are actively participating together.
I learn more about Luke and his life while we are wrestling than any
other time. We will be grunting and groaning as we push at each other's
body and all of the sudden he will stop and say something about his
day. Just as quickly we are back at it again. This pattern continues
with brief flashes of self-disclosure during activities. Julia, however,
doesn't seem to need the activity. She needs the emotional contact and
Both ways are healing, both need to be honored. Although I believe this
is a gender difference, it could easily go the other way, with my daughter
preferring activity and my son more inclined to talk. It is not that
boys do it one way and girls another. It is that as parents we are responsible
for finding our children's individual gifts in healing themselves and
then helping them use it.
Grief is a potent force and we need to find ways to steward our children's
connection with feelings of loss and their healing. Grief is no different
than any other process that children learn. As parents we steward our
children's anger, homework, sexuality, social skills, bathroom behavior,
and a long list of many others. We tend to be more active in our assistance
with the younger ones and expect more from children as they grow and
mature. We make decisions about what the child needs to know at any
given time and find ways to teach them the next level when they are
ready. Homework might be a good example.
Think of a very young child and how you help them with their studies.
Usually we tend to be more active in finding an appropriate place for
them to work and are also active in our help with their learning. As
the child grows older we expect and teach different things. We do less
of the actual work and more teaching skills in how to work.
This is stewardship. We give to them what they need at
any given time based on our understanding of their individual qualities
and their level of development. Stewarding a child's grief is the same.
We adjust our approach to their pain based on their level of development
and our assessment of their needs.
But stewarding grief is a tough task for parents who are actively grieving.
It is often a time when our "parent" energy to teach, help, and engage
our kids is at an all time low. We too are in need of healing. The saving
grace, however, is that by stewarding our children's grief we ourselves
Each time I have a burst of a conversation with Luke about my father
or each time Julia asks me for "special time," I get in touch with my
grief and loss related to my father's death. By stewarding I am also
Sometimes parents want to hide their feelings of grief and loss from
Occasionally this can be appropriate, but usually if the
parent holds back it stops the healing for both parent and child. The
kids sense that there is something not being said and will pick up that
this "holding back" must be the adult way to do things. We need to be
open with our kids about our grief in a way that helps them to see that
we are grieving. When we allow our kids to see our grief we give them
the best teaching we could give: a role model. This can be helpful to
both parents and children.
This said, let's look at a couple of ideas of ways families can heal
The first idea is to make sure that the name of the person who died
is spoken in your household. Speaking the name of the person has a powerful
effect. If the name is not spoken, it sets up a situation where it seems
that the topic of this person (or pet?) is not one that is open for
conversation. Saying the name out loud states clearly that the topic
is indeed open.
Children will respond to this in their own way. Watch carefully how
they respond and you will learn their ways of healing. Speaking the
name can manifest in a number of ways. It does not have to be on a rigid
schedule or formally spoken. The best ways I have found are to bring
up my father's name in spontaneous situations. For example, as we are
having dinner I might mention my father's love of something related
to what we are talking about. This gives a green light for the kids
(or the adults) to speak up if they wish, or to remain silent; both
Sometimes kids have very introverted ways of healing and can benefit
from listening to another's conversation. We need to honor all ways.
Another way of speaking the name is to include the person's name in
the prayers you use, such as requesting special blessings for this person
or using a prayer that may have been a favorite of theirs.
A related idea is to have pictures of the person who died in different
places in your home. In my house we have pictures of my father on the
refrigerator, stuck to some cabinets, and in some other spots. This
has a similar effect as speaking the name. It includes and honors the
person who died and gives a similar green light for discussion and healing.
Creating family activities in honor of the person who died are a great
way to accomodate all of the differences within your family. The activity
allows both a place to talk about the loss and an opportunity to connect
one's action with the grief.
Let's say the person who died loved fishing. In this case you might
plan a family activity for everyone to go fishing. You make it clear
that this trip is in honor of the person who died. On the trip you make
sure that the person's name is spoken and that the participants know
the nature of the honoring.
If conversations come up about the person then that is great; if not,
that is okay too. Doing something together as a family in honor of the
person who died is healing in itself. What generally happens is that
the kids get into it in their own ways. I know in my family, Luke would
say that he is going to catch the biggest fish for Granddaddy. In that
way he connects the trip and his action (fishing) with his grief for
his grandfather. There is healing in this. The activity provides a "ground"
in which the entire family can plant the seeds of their grief in their
Some family members may talk and cry about the loss while others, like
Luke, may connect their pain and tears with their goal to catch the
biggest fish. This same idea is important with regard to holidays and
anniversaries.There are many ways to honor the person who died and you
can use your creativity to find an activity that fits your family.
A traditional form of the activity idea is that of visiting the grave.
But often this is impractical due to distance or other reasons. The
kids also sometimes think it is "dumb." A variation on this is to create
a place that becomes linked to the person who died. Maybe that person
had a favorite spot, or maybe your family has a beautiful spot that
everyone enjoys visiting. As a parent you can link that spot with the
person who died. You can declare it a spot that the person who died
loved (or would have loved) and your family visits there can include
the memories of this person. It might be a waterfall, or like a family
I know, an amusement park. No words need be spoken as long as the family
knows the link has been made. Most times I think you will find that
the person becomes a topic of discussion when visiting that place.
Another family I know created a needlework (counted cross-stitch) memorial
in honor of a family member who had died. The father laid out the pattern
and the mother and children did the sewing. With the help of the kids
the father made a frame, and the needlework was dedicated to the person
who died and put in a place of honor in the family home. It was a family
project that used everyone's energy and involved everyone in the healing
process. The examples could go on and on: one family put together a
video, another created a sculpture for their yard.
The important point is that these families found a project that could
be used as a means of honoring the person who died while at the same
time giving the family a joint space to honor their grief. By doing
things together as a family in honor of the person who died you are
creating a healing space for the whole family.
As parents we need to find a variety of ways to help ourselves and our
family heal our grief and pain. By doing it together we not only heal,
we come closer as a family unit. Let me know if you have some ideas
about ways families can heal together.
Copyright 2002 Tom
Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author of Swallowed
by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing, and therapist
who specializes in healing from loss and trauma. Tom's workshops are
known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact
Tom by clicking here for inquiries about speaking or training for your
the death of a sibling as a child
A child's experience of losing a sibling depends largely
on their understanding of death, which is associated with age and developmental
level. These age ranges are approximate, and you (as a child) or your
child may have a broader understanding than those described here. Children
suffer not only the actual loss, but a lifetime of living in a family
which may have become dysfunctional after the loss.
Infants suffer from the grief of caregivers. The grief stricken family
members are not as attuned to the baby as they were prior to the loss.
An infant who has been cared for by an older sibling will feel the loss.
Toddlers think of death as temporary and reversible. They say things
like "Well if Susie is in heaven, we can send her letters, can't we?"
They think in concrete terms (what they can see or touch) and may not
comprehend why their beloved sibling is lying in a box, or why he or
she isn't at home waiting for them when they come back from the funeral.
Toddlers grieving the loss of a sibling have been known to become mute
for a period, or to regress to an earlier stage of development, such
as wetting the bed. Children in the younger age groups may have thought
about an older sibling as a parent figure who took care of them, and
wonder who will take care of them now that he or she is gone.
children aged 6-8
Children aged 6-8 have seen dead birds and bugs, seen people die on
television, and heard it talked about. They think of death as a scary
thing that they can hide from, by hiding under the bed, for example.
They say things like "When your hair gets white, you die, right?"
They associate death with ghosts and skeletons. They know what it is,
but not that it is going to affect them personally. They may ask questions
about the death over and over. It is as if they have to learn the lesson
of death many times for it to sink in.
At these young ages, children engage in what is called "magical" thinking.
They may believe, for example, that their
anger can kill, and that they cause the events surrounding them.
They are still the center of their own universe and may take the blame
for the death. Adults bereaved in childhood have often suffered for
years, believing that they were responsible for their sibling's death.
Children change at sometime around nine years to a more realistic understanding
of death. They know that it cannot be reversed, that it is permanent,
and that everyone dies. Parents can mistakenly assume that their child
understands more at this age than they do. Research shows that bereaved
children at this age act out by misbehaving and trying to get attention.
Parents and others might get mad at the child because they are behaving
this way, but in reality, this is the child's way of mourning! Many
adults look back on the way they behaved when a loved one was dying,
and suffer more from guilt about their misbehavior than they do from
the loss itself. (That's like blaming your toddler self for not knowing
how to read.)
Like the younger group, these children do not always behave like adults
when they lose a loved one-instead they may act out, or simply act as
if nothing happened at all. They may fall asleep or want to go outside
and play when everyone else is mourning.
Again, they are mourning in their own way, a way that is associated
with their age more than their level of caring for the deceased. These
older children may have helped with child care a great deal and some
have thought of their sibling as their own child.
For further information, call (USA) 314-941-3798, or email the Sibling