Thursday, March 6, 2014

Teaching Young Children about Loss and Grief

My baby cousin passed away recently – she was seven days old.  Baby Kate has two older brothers. One is five and one is three.  The three year old doesn't really understand the concept of death, but the older brother gets it – he knew that momma was pregnant and was going to have a baby and that that baby is now gone to heaven.

This is a difficult thing to talk about with young children.  Dr. Brazleton wrote about “Loss and Grief” in his book, Touchpoints and here are a few suggestions he gives:

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1. Talk about these tragedies with young children. “Grief is a vital and inevitable part of life. Longing for someone who is temporarily or permanently lost adds an important dimension to a child’s ability to care about others.”

Children are exposed to tragedies almost on a daily basis.  Do you have the radio or news on while little ones are in the room?  What kinds of questions do they ask?  How do you explain tragedy to them?  As Dr. Brazelton explained, it is important to answer your child's questions, and explain to them in a way that they can understand.

2. Share your feelings with your child – this helps children understand what you are feeling and why – if a parent “withdraws without sharing their experience, it’s a confirmation of their worst fear- grandma has died -and now mom is sad and she might die too!”

Children give their parents a sense of purpose and hope for the future.  My cousin said her baby girl died to save her mother’s life, the ultimate sacrifice, so that she could raise her two boys.  This motivated her to want to get out of the hospital and back home to parent her boys!

3. “When (the child) makes her weeping mother smile, the child can experience a rare sense of power in changing her mother’s mood to a positive one, if only briefly.  I am constantly struck with the observation that a small child will attempt to comfort a grieving parent.”

As the tears came again and again just after baby Kate passed, finally their three year old stood up and, pointing his finger to his mom said, “Mom, stop crying! You have got to stop crying!! Just stop it!..." This young child's reaction definitely turned those tears of sadness into tears of laughter. 

4. Tell the child as much as you think the child will understand – but not too frightening
“You must prepare her for conversations that she will overhear”

Ask your child who is sad with the loss of a loved one he knew: “Can you remember some of the things about him to tell me?” When the child shares some of his memories, they become more ingrained in his memory, rather than the sad feelings he is now experiencing.  

5. Often, when a close loved one passes away, a full range of emotions are experienced.  When a child learns to identify her feelings, this can lead to the development of empathy for others who are sad or upset. Children begin to develop empathy as they reach the stage of "imaginary play" and develop their peer relations.  The development of empathy begins around three years of age.

My cousin and her family will indeed continue to experience a range of emotions as they mourn the loss of baby Kate.  Although her younger son doesn't really understand yet, his parents have taken the time to explain to him as much as he will understand.  And their older son is only beginning to understand, but his parents continue to answer his questions and talk with him about how he is feeling.



For more information of helping children manage their emotions, check out a previous Help Me Grow blog post by clicking here

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