Talking With Children About Loss
Children's Bereavement Center on 04/01/2014
The stressors of everyday life often seem difficult enough to navigate. When a crisis occurs, normal feelings of anxiety, sadness, grief, helplessness, and even anger can be more exaggerated. Our natural hopes are that we can provide for the comfort and safety of our children. But all too often, negative life events interfere with the sense of competence and peace we strive for. In responding to a crisis, whether it’s a death, natural disaster, violence, or trauma the CBC offers the following information as a guide for conversation and support that can help in times of need.
- Begin with You – Any effort to assist your child(ren) should begin with reflection on your own needs and intentions. Helping others is most effective when you have found support and comfort personally, and are then able to address the needs of others from a stance of safety, consistency, and availability. Children are especially sensitive to the stress felt by adults offering help and may even withhold their needs so as to not burden others. Taking care of oneself is the first step in helping others.
- What does your child know? - Start with what they know. Asking your child what they already know allows you to be grounded in what information is really needed. It also builds trust that their opinions are important to you, even when you disagree. Assume that children are listening, paying attention, and will be exposed to information about the event. Information is more comfortable coming from someone who cares, like you.
- Listen Carefully – Listen for the thoughts, needs, and feelings behind what is shared. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and any underlying fears or concerns. It’s OK to disagree, just gently correct inaccurate information. If your child misunderstands or has inaccurate information, take time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, and age-appropriate language.
- Talk about it (simply)-Children benefit from honest, clear, and age appropriate information. Withholding information can contribute to their natural anxieties and may give the impression that things are too horrible to discuss. Simple, clear, and honest comments help to begin the conversation and allow children to share with you. Remember that children are not always burdened by the weight of perspective we adults have. Giving children a simple vocabulary for the expression of feelings and events helps with their sharing.
“Something very sad/bad has happened…”
“We don’t have all the answers yet, but I’ll let you know”
“We can talk more later…”
“I am sorry/sad also…”
This will be a continuing conversation. It will not, and does not, need to occur in one sitting. You do not have to provide a solution.
- Address their Questions, again and again – You may not have all the answers, especially to the “big” questions that children ask like “why.” Children ask questions we can’t possibly have the answers for…i.e., “Is he in heaven? Am I still a sister”? Often the best response is “What do you think”? This response opens the door to the conversation and an insight to their concerns and needs.
Often, children are simply looking for a sense of understanding so they can feel safe and prepared. Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee everything will be OK all the time. There is a loss of innocence that exists after crisis. After a crisis, many children and adults need reassurance that they will be safe.
By being open to questions, children will see you as a resource and feel more comfortable sharing with you when needed. Focus on what we can control - taking care of our health, safety plans, talking about feelings, helping others. This may be an opportunity to discuss established plans for safety and response within your family. Keep the conversation open and share that you’re available for future discussion of feelings and needs as they arise. When bad things happen, it is also an opportunity for open and honest conversations with kids.
- Be an example – Explain how you feel to your child. Sharing your feelings and being honest about your emotions is a good example to children. Let them know it is OK to cry….i.e., crying often helps us to feel better. Children benefit from seeing how appropriate coping looks. Hiding your feelings may give the impression that we don’t talk about things that are difficult. Children want reassurance that you are taking care of yourself. If you are having trouble managing your emotions, find support for yourself. Share with your children the positives in the situation where possible (response of professionals, family and community support, tribute opportunities).
- Limit exposure to the media – Continued or repeated stories/images about a crisis event can be overwhelming to children. Younger children may believe that repeated images and news stories are separate events. They may not comprehend the facts of the situation and misinterpret dangers that have passed. Understand that your exposure to the media can also contribute to your stress and will be perceived by those around you. If your child has been exposed to a troubling story/image, take a moment to turn off the television, and quietly ask what they think has happened. Take the opportunity to discuss and clarify the event. Stay focused on what we can do to respond and find support.
- Common Responses – It is common for children to feel confusion, anxiety, and have difficulty with attention and concentration after a crisis event. Some may be agitated, irritable, defensive or withdrawn. Separation anxiety may occur and occasionally a child may exhibit regressed behavior like thumb sucking or bed-wetting. It’s common for children to feel anxious about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how it will impact their lives. If the child had functioned well before the crisis, it is expected that they return to their previous behaviors within a few weeks. Understand that their feelings and adjustment may be ongoing. If difficult behaviors continue or they are unable to attend to daily needs, professional help may be beneficial.
- Patience, patience, patience – Be patient with those around you and with yourself. Feelings and behaviors can change over time. Focus on the adjustment to life after the event. It is an ongoing and long term experience.
- Connect with Others – Often there are resources and others who are also making effort to provide assistance following a crisis. Working together with others allows for shared energy and a sense of strength that can help during the stress of crisis response. Be open to assistance and remember you don’t have to do it all yourself. Engage with family, friends, and professionals where needed. Remember, you are not alone.
For comments regarding this article contact:
Kathy Kramer, LCSW, CT
Children's Bereavement Center
7600 S. Red Road, Suite 307
South Miami, FL 33143