Bereaved Children: How to Help When Their World Is Upside Down

Despite advances in the field of grief, myths and misconceptions abound. For example, before the last half century or so, children were thought too young to be able to grieve the loss of a primary caretaker. This fallacy not only caused an incomprehensible lack of daily security or stability, but not being able to fully grieve impacted individuals forever. Fortunately, modern psychology and social work have done a great deal to bring more compassion, understanding, and non-judgemental support to bereaved children.

Different Experience

Far and wide, people try to comfort those in mourning, but resorting to cliches can have the opposite effect on kids mourning the loss of a parent. Saying things like “they’re in a better place”, “they wouldn’t want you to be sad”, or “they’re watching over you” may be attached to sincere feelings, but they often cause anger and sadness in bereaved children.

Why Is That, Exactly?

Kids grieve in ways that are vastly different from adults. For instance, they cannot tolerate grief for extended periods of time. They tend to move between normal, everyday life, and bottomless sadness, sometimes without obvious triggers or warnings. A side effect of this coping mechanism, however, is that once all that bottled-up emotion has a slight opening, the floodgates open up in a deeply personal, unsettling, and intense way.

Factors like age, relationship to the deceased, how the person died, overall personality, and the dynamic between a grieving child and their new primary caretaker can impact the experience.

They Seem Fine

Mourning is what other people see on the outside, while grieving is what’s happening inside a person struggling with the death of a loved one. Bereaved children don’t always show the world what’s going on, but they are definitely going through all the various stages (at different times) of grieving. Guardians may not necessarily understand the sort of numblike, or shocked, state that seems to have shut down a child’s normal reactions.

Provide a Safe Place

Bereaved children, no matter their age, need a non-judgemental, supportive environment in which they can freely express their grief. If they are old enough, encourage them to write down their feelings in addition to allowing them the time and space to express their feelings out loud.

The lives of bereaved children get flipped upside down after a parent passes away. It’s critical not to give up on them, remain patient, and to show up for them. It’s not always clear if they want space or more attention; be prepared to help them through the confusion. Never force them to open up about their feelings. They must be reassured that all of their feelings are okay.

Bereaved Children and the Truth

A previous approach to bereaved children was, quite simply, not to tell them the truth about what happened to their parent. Certainly, it’s important to take a child’s age into consideration regarding how much they learn about their parent’s death, but it can be harmful to withhold details. Discuss the funeral or memorial service with them and have an alternative or exit plan, if needed.

Help kids accept grief as a lifelong process, one that doesn’t need to be “handled”, “gotten over” or “solved”. Their relationship with their deceased mom or dad can (and will) evolve as they age, and their grasp of the event will also transition throughout their life.

If you or someone you know is trying to help a young adult or child through the death of their parent, please let us know. Our caring staff members at Miller Funeral Services are always here for you.

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