Helping your child with grief | Parent Talk

Patti Skelton-McGougan - Contributed
Patti Skelton-McGougan
— image credit: Contributed

In the past couple of months, we’ve had some very public stories of death, including a Woodinville teacher and a Kirkland teenager. When death happens to someone close to us, the feelings can be difficult for children of any age to process, especially when violence is involved.

“How much children understand depends on their age and maturity level,” explains Evan Kimble, one of the experienced grief counselors at Youth Eastside Services. “For example, a child who already has lost a family pet may more quickly assimilate what it means when a person dies.”

No matter the age, experience or personality of your children, there are a few important truths to remember when talking with them about death.

First, do your best to be honest and to create an atmosphere of comfort. Answer questions to the best of your ability — and it’s alright to say “I don’t know.”

It’s also an appropriate time to share your spiritual beliefs. Some parents worry about letting their kids see them cry, but allowing them to see your pain shows that it’s a natural reaction to loss.

Because kids may have a hard time understanding the concept of death, it’s best to explain it in their terms. Up to kindergarten or first grade, be very concrete.

For example, Mary was hurt so bad that her body stopped working, and doctors couldn’t fix her. Avoid using words like “lost” or “went to sleep.” This will provide expectations that the person can be found or will wake up — or, even worse, make a child fearful of going to sleep.

Between the ages of 6 and 10, kids begin to grasp the finality of death. They are more likely to have nightmares or feel fearful of their own mortality. Extra time together, hugs and listening, combined with simple explanations to questions, are the best approaches.

As kids mature into teens, they realize that every living thing eventually dies. They may also personalize a death more and be fearful of what could happen to them. It may be a good time to remind your teen about ways to stay safe, like never getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking.

As much as possible, encourage your child to participate in normal activities like sports and time with friends. If your child doesn’t seem to rebound and find joy in a reasonable amount of time, it’s a good idea to seek counseling. With teens, be on the lookout for unsafe coping methods, such as substance abuse, extreme withdrawal,  fighting, or acting out.

As parents, we can’t shield our kids from sadness or loss. But helping them learn to cope with it will build emotional resources they can rely on throughout life.

Patti Skelton-McGougan is executive director of Youth Eastside Services (YES). YES is a nonprofit organization and a leading provider of youth counseling and substance abuse services in the region. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering treatment, education and prevention services to help youth become healthy, confident and self-reliant and families to be strong, supportive and loving. While YES accepts insurance, Medicaid and offers a sliding scale, no one is turned away for inability to pay. For more information, visit YouthEastsideServices.org.


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