Helping Children Through Grief & Loss
When I heard the news that my daughter's friend committed suicide, it was the first time in my parenting journey where I was at a complete loss. Nothing prepared me to walk my daughter through something so devastating. I had never read a book or parenting guide on picking up the pieces of my daughter's shattered heart, nor had I watched a how-to video on explaining suicide and death to a young teenager. I think when we’re young, we know in the back of our heads that older generations will inevitably pass on and, though difficult, come to accept it as part of life. But not this. This was a wonderful, young teenager. Again, I was at a complete loss.
Not knowing what to do, I let the moment and my mama instincts take over. After we let go of our embrace, I decided to let go of our day’s expectations and schedule. I contacted her school counselor, teachers, and mentors. I made her favorite comfort foods. I sat with her when she wanted me to and gave her space when she needed me to. We spent the day grieving, and I wasn’t sure how to move us forward.
I may not have known how to inch forward, but I know I am not the only one that feels this way. The devastating news rocked our home community. Friends and loved ones have been shaken to their core, and each one of us is dealing with this differently. I wanted to make sure I was doing the best thing for my grieving daughter, so I spent the majority of today researching how to help a teenager grieve properly. I want to share some helpful resources. For the sake of our children’s mental health, I highly recommend reading both.
The first one is by Madelynn Vickers called Teen Grief 101: Helping Teens Deal with Loss. My favorite quote from the article reminds me of how important comforting your teen is. It says,
“You should find out what comforts the teen. If it’s watching the deceased person’s favorite movie over and over again, that movie better be on repeat. There are so many ways to help teenagers cope with a loss; you just have to figure out which one works best.”
The second resource was sent to me by my daughters’ counselor. It’s from www.beyondblue.org.au and is titled Talking to Children about a Suicide Loss. The article talks about the importance of speaking truthfully to your child. It says,
“It might be harder to truthfully talk about the death of a loved one following suicide without leaving some information out. But not being honest can mean they may fill in the gaps with their imagination or half-truths they hear from others, which can lead to bigger issues, like anxiety. Clear and honest communication reassures children that someone will take care of them physically and emotionally. It also creates a renewed sense of safety, security and trust.”
I expect my daughter to carry the heaviness of her friend’s death with her for a while, as is the norm when facing loss. In fact, I imagine all of us in this community will be under a blanket of sorrow for a while.
Unfortunately, our society is all too familiar with sorrow and grief as tragic events and gun violence fill our news and social media feeds.
I've heard it said that grief is love with nowhere to go. If love is one of the most powerful feelings in life, you can imagine how powerful grief is.
Grief isn't always death either. It's loss of anything that you love - a changing friendship, loss sense of security, moving, changing schools, a missing sentimental item, a lost pet, the list can go on and on.
Whether from the death of a loved one, a traumatic event, loss of a friendship, divorce, miscarriage, or a chapter in your life ending, it can creep up on you out of nowhere and knock the wind out of you. It's a cloud that follows your every move, a dust storm that hits every crevice of your body, and a heavyweight that submerges you in deep waters of the unknown. In time, life can get better, but that loss and change doesn't ever go away. It's something that we learn to move around, under, and in.
For children, these feelings are magnified because their brains are still developing and they are learning all about life. Loss has a great impact on children and how we help them process it is vital to their well being.
Grief has no timeline, but understanding how it works can help us through the process.
According to expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss American psychiatrist, there are five stages of grief and loss. In her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” Kübler-Ross studied the five most common emotional reactions to loss:
I've learned that these have no particular order, and can creep up on you at any time. What is important is that we take time to feel these feelings, acknowledge what they are, and process through them appropriately.
In an article on https://kidshealth.org/, D'Arcy Lyness, PhD explains how to help your child when a loved one dies. These tips are essential when processing loss and going through the stages of grief. I have used these tips while dealing with my own grief and while my children have gone through loss.
Use simple words to talk about death.
Listen and comfort.
Put feelings into words.
Tell your child what to expect.
Explain events that will happen.
Give your child a role.
Help your child remember the person.
Give comfort and reassure your child.
Help your child feel better.
Give your child time to heal from the loss.
Get more help if needed.
Please know I am not an expert; I am an imperfect mom at best. I am also an advocate for children’s mental health, and while we may not know what to do in heartbreaking situations like this, these situations are the opportune time to educate ourselves and connect with our children. In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity to check in on their mental health.