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  • Writer's pictureEmma

Helping Your Child With Grief (and tending to your own experience of loss)

#GriefAwarenessDay - August 30th

Woman holding a sad child on her lap

Grief is the normal human response to loss. As adults we struggle with it, whether experiencing, understanding or even talking about it, so how can we support our children when they have suffered a loss?

First, let’s explore what it means to lose someone, or something.

It starts with our natural instinct to bond, to attach, to find meaning in the people, places and objects in our world. As infants we bond tightly to our caregivers. This is necessary because they ensure our survival. and this attachment makes us feel safe. As we grow and become more aware of the world around us, we attach emotional meaning to objects – dolls, blankets, dummies – and this can help us to separate a little from our caregivers but still keep that feeling of safety. As older children, we become more aware of our surroundings, and often feel that same safety in the familiarity of places we visit often. This safety and our survival are at the heart of the bonds we form, and because of this we invest a huge amount of ourselves into these people, places and objects.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. We may lose loved ones, not only when they die but also through divorce or moving away. Our belongings may get damaged, broken or lost. Even the places we love can be hit by natural disaster, or simply change through new developments and building upgrades. When one of these is no longer available to us, the safety we felt can become compromised and it can even feel like a threat to our survival. In fact, many people suffering the loss of a loved one can feel like they too are dying. More than this though, our attachment to that person, place or object is still live – fully active with nothing to connect to any more. That untethered bond feels raw and wrong, and our intense longing for whatever is no longer there makes their absence even more painful.

Because loss is inevitable though, we have to adapt. The process of grief is one of reorganisation: A reorganisation of our world view, our expectations about what makes us feel safe, and most importantly a reorganisation of our emotional attachments. We cannot live forever with an exposed nerve with nothing to shield and protect it, so we cannot live forever with a raw open attachment with nothing to connect to. We have to redefine what is meaningful to us, to withdraw that attachment bond back into ourselves, and to find a new way of living and experiencing safety in the world.

Young girl holding a teddy and a blanket

You may notice that in this definition, grief is not limited only to bereavement. The very real upset of losing a treasured toy or the disappointment of not going to a favourite place is just as hard to cope with for a child who is inexperienced in the pain and suffering of loss. One of our jobs as parents is to help our children withstand and learn to navigate this process. The younger they are, or the more connected they were, the more intense their feelings will be. Where you can, try to take some time to acknowledge and accept your child’s feelings of loss. You can simply sit with them, hold them (if they want) and make soothing sounds, or reassuring phrases like ‘I know’, ‘It’s hard, isn’t it?’ or ‘Oh love’. Your physical presence offers them the safe connection they need to be able to tolerate the pain of not being able to attach to the person, place or object.

As their feelings reduce – and they will eventually – you can start to talk with them about the emotions they are experiencing. Describing their experience can help a child feel both validated and gain perspective over what they are going through.

‘That was your favourite teddy, and you lost them at the park. You’ve been crying really hard because you love teddy so much, don’t you. It hurts to lose teddy doesn’t it? Do you feel sad about it? And maybe a bit angry too? I think I would as well if I lost my favourite teddy’.

Keep your language simple, your sentences short, and notice when your child turns away. At that point they can’t take in any more, and you can simply be with them, quiet and supportive. Try not to name their feelings as you don’t actually know what they are feeling, but you can ask them if they feel sad, angry or all the other emotions you might imagine they feel. This gives them space to reflect and think for themselves what they are going through, laying the foundations for later self-regulatory activity.

You may notice your own feelings in response to your child’s expression of loss. Of course if you are all going through a bereavement or divorce, you have probably been hit harder by the reality of loss than your child. In this case, it is important to tend to your own grief. The loss you are going through is likely to affect your ability to function well, and your children will need you to provide basic care needs such as food and physical safety. Wait until you are ready before doing deeper emotional work with your little ones, but also don’t hide your own emotions from them. It is fine to let your child know ‘I’m crying now because I’m really sad about Nanny. I’ll come and play with you soon’. Again, keep it short and turn to another adult when you need deeper emotional support.

In what we might see as more trivial situations, like not being able to go to the park or losing an ice cream, notice what feelings arise in you when your child starts whining or crying. If you feel irritation, annoyance or helplessness, first know these are normal reactions! As adults, we can see that it's not that big a deal. These feelings also reveal something about what you have learned about grief and loss though, and how you respond to it. For those of us lucky enough to have had our emotions accepted as children, we may find it easier to accept our child’s expression of pain. But for those of us who were raised to be ‘seen and not heard’, to ‘stop whining or I’ll give you something to whine about’, a subtle or even outright impulse to reject our child’s pain is very common. We were taught to reject our own painful feelings and so we tend to reject others’ pain as well. Given that much parenting advice now focuses on allowing and accepting our children’s feelings, our own rejection and frustration at our child can cause a huge amount of inner tension.

This is where we can ‘work’ on ourselves, and take some time to understand why we react the way we do. You may need a therapist to help you with this, but as you better understand that the impatience comes from a childhood experience of self rejection, it can become possible to develop greater self-acceptance and inner gentleness towards your own pain and vulnerabilities. As you develop a new relationship with your own pain and loss, the gentleness you wish to provide for your child becomes easier, and it can become easier to tolerate and support your child’s reaction to loss. In your kind acceptance and patient support, they will deeply internalise how to take care of their own feelings of loss and better regulate themselves through times of loss and hurt. This will be a gift they can draw upon time and time again, both for themselves and for others throughout the rest of their lives.


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