“No one can tell me where my son is,” was the distraught cry of Christine Leinonen following the recent nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida. The tragic truth was that her son was dead, one of 49 victims. Those 49 have left behind children, siblings, spouses, parents, partners and loved ones.
According to a survey conducted by Comfort Zone Camp, the nation’s largest bereavement camp, it is estimated that one in seven children before the age of twenty suffer through the death of a parent or sibling. If that is not devastating enough, in many families, no one talks about it. Many don’t know what to do or say when it comes to helping a child cope with death. Children are often the forgotten grievers.
Kids do feel the roller coaster of emotions that one experiences after the death of a loved one. Sometimes they are quiet, being sensitive to the adults who are suffering, not wanting to add to their burden of pain. Sometimes, they become clingy. Others will isolate. Some act out with misbehavior.
Adults may think kids are fine because they play and go about their day. They don’t want to upset the children, going out of their way to protect them and to pretend that everything is normal. Sometimes, this is not the best choice. When children do express themselves, they identify sadness, fears, anger, guilt and confusion. In addition, they describe feeling lost, alone and invisible.
We Need To Talk About It
It is unnecessary for children to feel lost, alone or invisible; a new approach is needed. A family can take steps to help a child feel safe following the death of a loved one.
Tell children the truth even with a tragic death like murder or suicide. The stories children imagine in their own mind can be harder to deal with than the truth. The details we share about how a loved one died can be simple.
“Mom was in a car accident. The car slid on the ice and hit a tree. She died from injuries that made it impossible for her to breathe anymore.”
“Your brother was in the nightclub, dancing and having fun, when he was killed by a man with a gun. This man had crazy thoughts, and decided he would shoot many people. It’s impossible to understand. I know it’s hard for you. It’s hard for me too.”
“Your sister had an illness in her brain that made her very depressed. It caused her to think that living with this mental illness was unbearable, so she chose to end her life by taking too many pills that made her body stop working.”
Explain what death means in clear, concrete ways to begin to ease confusion. Use the word died instead of passed away, left us to go to heaven or is sleeping with the angels, as these can be confusing. Younger kids understand things literally, so “left us” means they can come back if they want to. State that the loved one who died cannot come back; their body no longer works; or they cannot see, breathe or talk.
Reassure a child that they could not change what happened. Children may think they did something wrong and feel guilty about their behavior. A teen might think, “I didn’t spend enough time with mom before she died.” Or, a child might feel guilty for saying something mean to a sibling. Sometimes, a child may believe their behavior caused the death. No child has control over the circumstances of a loved one’s death, so it is important to let go of the “what if” or “if only.” Tell a child that it is impossible for their thoughts or behavior to be the cause of their loved one’s death.
Be honest about our own feelings and help kids to identify theirs. A simple rule of thumb to help a child identify their feelings is to name the four basic emotions: happy, sad, angry and scared. “I am sad because I miss dad so much. How do you feel right now—happy, sad, angry, scared?,” can be a conversation starters to open up communication so a child can feel free to express themselves.
Kids may be clingy when they are scared. They may be afraid that the other parent will die or they will get sick themselves. An opening question can help a child say what is on their mind. “Sometimes I feel scared when I think about dad not ever coming home again. Do you ever feel scared like me?” is an example. If the answer is yes, continue the conversation by asking what makes them scared?.
Anger is normal in grief, because life as they knew it will never be the same. Direct a child to express their anger through drawing, writing, puppet play or punching a punching bag. Kids have to learn how to express it, so that it isn’t misdirected.
Unresolved grief reactions can lead to psychosomatic complaints, nightmares, school performance or behavioral issues, anxiety or depression, and at the extreme, substance abuse or self-harming behavior. The more authentic a family can be with their sadness, fears, anger, guilt, confusion and forgiveness, the healthier the adjustment can be.
There is no time limit on grief. We can’t speed it up because we want it to be over; it will take as long as it takes. Adults may try to quickly get back to normal with kids to avoid the rawness of pain. However, there is beauty in the depths of sorrow, or in the darkest, heaviest days of anger or loneliness. The rawness shows the beauty of who we are as human beings. Try not to pretend with a child. This only teaches them to deny or avoid connection to themselves and the truth of what they feel and think. Secondly, they can learn to not trust the connection with others. We need that connection to grow.
We need to show children the truth of our inter-connectedness and how we are all affected by what happens to each other. We were affected by the mass shootings in Orlando and Sandy Hook. Hundreds of thousands of families are affected by cancer deaths, accidents and suicide. The more open we are—and the more we share with each other—the more we can help one another.
Kids also need to understand that death cannot break our true spirit. Resilience and gratitude for what we have and who we are can be a few “gifts” kids can learn from loss. It also helps to remind ourselves and the children that even though we think we will never get through what seems impossible to do following the death of a loved one, there is hope. We do survive, we can thrive and be happy again. Communities need to stick together. Through the healing power of friendship, kids learn that love soothes heartache and life continues on, following grief.
Resources that are available to support a child and their family include community grief centers, grief camps, books and movies on grief, help from clergy and counseling. Remember that animals usually hold a special place in many kids’ hearts. Children can relate to animal characters and lessons can be learned in a non-intimidating way. If a child seems depressed or highly anxious, has school performance changes or serious behavioral changes, it is important to seek professional help.