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Children and Loss: How to support children when bad things happen

Loss is a painful but inevitable part of life. Children regularly experience small losses like misplacing a favorite toy, changing plans away from something they were looking forward to or not being allowed the candy bar they had their heart set on. Sadly, childhood often also includes more intense loss like a beloved friend moving away, a pet dying, disasters such as flooding or house-fires, the reorganization of a family unit through divorce, or the death of someone close to us.

We can feel a variety of emotions when new lose something we care about. Sadness, or emotional pain, is always at the core of this. Sadness is a powerful and uncomfortable emotion. We love our children and don’t want them to hurt. However, it is important to remember that sadness is a healthy response to loss.

When we lose something rewarding to us we feel sad. We feel sad as a way to promote continued engagement with the things we find rewarding. If we did not feel sad we might be less motivated to search out and maintain the things of value to us. Though important and natural, the pain of that sadness can be overwhelming and suffocate joy.

I am frequently asked to see kids in the face of these losses and have a few tips for parents and caregivers from my years of working in this area.

1) Children need to feel safe and healing only happens from safety

For many children safety is routine and predictability. Often when we face major losses in our lives routines and patterns change. Questions like “but who is going to pick me up from school?”, “where am I going to sleep?”, “what if it happens again?” or “could it happen to me?” are common. We want to send the message to our children that they are safe. We can do this by talking with our children and clearly communicating to them that they are safe but the biggest message of safety comes from having their needs met predictably. Ensuring basics like sleep, healthy nutrition and activity will be important for making sure children have the capacity they need to experience difficult emotions.

Another aspect of safety that is vital following a major loss is providing children with accurate and complete information about the loss. Often we shield children from details assuming that doing so will protect them from the pain of the loss. In my experience, not knowing is worse than knowing in most cases. Children’s imaginations will fill in the blanks and often do so incorrectly. Sometimes when children fill in these blanks they do so with misunderstandings about their safety related to the loss and these misconceptions follow them. Provide children with clear, accurate and complete information to the best of your ability following a loss.

2) Sit with kids in their emotions

We love our children and don’t want them to hurt. When a small child is running and trips, instinctively most parents run to them, brush off their knee, and tell them they are OK. I think we do this more for us than them. We have the same response when children experience emotional pain. Don’t tell them how to feel following a loss. Rather, explore with them how they are feeling, create safety, and sit with them in their feelings. Resist the urge to fix or rescue a child from how they are feeling.

When speaking to someone who has experienced a significant loss- try to use more reflections than questions. My favorite reflections are those that imagine the key emotion in what they are saying. For example, “You miss them so much. It feels so horrible.” By reflecting emotions back to them you tell them that their emotions are okay and that you are strong enough to sit with them in them.

Children don’t express emotions the way adults do. Their brains are primed to live in the moment. They don’t process big events all at once- rather expect their emotions to come out over time and typically in brief windows. The younger the child, the more likely we will see them briefly sit in a powerful emotion and then rapidly shift to something else. Take advantage of those moments. Tell them and show them that talking about it is okay and we are strong enough to handle their emotions. This is safety also.

Depending on the age of the child and the depth of the grief, how they process the world around them and make sense of what happens may not make sense for you. Be ready for questions or comments that may not fit with your understanding of the world, may seem selfish or insensitive and may seem overly dramatic or detached. Everyone processes overwhelming experience differently and helping children know that how they view the world is important while still helping them re-frame their experience. This is a delicate balance. Let them know that they are not stupid or strange for how they process but show them that there are other ways to view things. Be the safe base for them to explore their experience from.

3) Reconnect with the things they find rewarding

Sadness can feel like a cloud blocking the sun, or, as a colleague I deeply respect phrased it, it may feel like their sun is gone. When we experience loss the sadness that follows can take all of our emotional energy, leaving little room for happiness. Also, feeling happy following a loss can feel like a betrayal to the thing we have lost and the emotions we feel in response. Allowing ourselves to feel sadness as well as joy following a loss is essential. Give children room to feel both of these. Help them to continue to engage in the things that they enjoy following a loss.

One of the most essential things needed is to be around others. Depending on how large the loss was it can be hard to connect with others again. Children may feel embarrassed or afraid of being around others because they do not know how others will react to them or how to react to others who have lost things. Help prepare them for this. If they feel safe doing so and are worried about re-engaging with others, have them practice how they might respond to questions or how they will interact with others. Help them to re-engage but be sure to provide room for them to rest and heal in whatever way is most comfortable for them.

Loss isn’t something you get over- it is something you feel deeply and also learn to continue to find joy in the face of. Grieving a loss is not methodical and clean; it is often messy, clumsy and crippling. Be there for those who need you and be compassionate and honest with yourself when you experience loss. Like they tell us on airplanes, make sure to affix and secure your own oxygen supply before helping others. Sometimes taking care of yourself is the best way to take care of those around you. As a care giver your health and safety will directly impact the health and safety felt by those you care for following a loss.


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