Recently the news has been all about the death of Michael Jackson. Millions watched his memorial service and our hearts went out to Paris-Michael when she told the world how much she loved her dad. Now, we wonder what can be done to help the Jackson children, and others who have also lost a parent, come to terms with their grief.
What Death Means to Kids
For kids, how they perceive death depends on their age and cognitive development. Preschool aged kids believe death is temporary. Five to nine year olds start to realize that death is irreversible and that all living things die, but think that they are somehow immune to it. Preteens, however, fully comprehend death. “Between 9 and 12, children understand that death is inevitable and affects everyone,” explains Dr. Jessica Lippman, author of Helping Children Cope With the Death of a Parent.
What to Expect
Immediately after the death of a close family member, most people experience a period of intense upheaval and a sense of unreality, which can last a few months. “Gradually the real meaning of the loss takes shape, not just in how the person’s absence is felt, but also in the many ways life has changed,” says Dr. Robin Goodman, Director of A Caring Hand. “Grief for children is about the everyday changes and reminders – who read you a story at night or an empty chair at the dinner table.”
These reminders can provoke different reactions in different kids. Their behavior may range from regression, which could include acting out, to anger, separation anxiety, or needing to control everything. Kids sometimes try to regain the feeling of control in their lives by taking on more responsibility than is age appropriate. Often, the oldest child will try to take on the role of family caretaker. “It’s very important that this behavior is not accentuated or encouraged, because if the older child is taking care of the family, he can’t take care of himself and fully mourn,” explains Dr. Cara Gardenswartz, a psychologist with expertise in grieving.
It is crucial to watch for signs that your child needs help coping with their grief. Most behavior, under these circumstances, is considered normal. However, Suzy Yehl Marta, author of Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope advises finding a counselor who specializes in grief and loss if a child’s response is extreme, protracted, or the caregiver is concerned.
Supporting Your Kids
“As a first priority, the adults in the child’s world need to reestablish a sense of stability and predictability for their youngster,” recommends Dr. Lippman. The death of a parent can trigger fear of the unknown in a seemingly volatile world. “The circumstances of a death address how we see the safety and stability of our world. As adults, we have to help our children sort out the reasons and circumstances of the death,” continues Lippman. Helping your child put the death in perspective and assuring that they will be cared for goes a long way in helping them through the grieving process.
“Listen, listen, listen,” is the advice of Deidre Lewin, Director of the Den for Grieving Kids. The best way to help a child through the trauma of the death of a loved one is to be there while they sort through their feelings, but not tell them what they should feel. “Accept their feelings,” says Lewin, “even though those feelings may be very intense.”
Lewin also recommends being honest with your kids, but sharing information in an age appropriate way. When answering your child’s questions remember to consider: what the child wants to know, what the child needs to know, and what the child can understand.
Death is tragic and kids need to know that it is okay to express emotions and be sad. Modeling grief is good for your kids. “Children benefit from seeing adults cry. Tears validate the deep emotions the child has and gives them permission to cry too,” explains Suzy Yehl Marta.
Grieving is hard on the surviving parent and tough to manage without the help of family, friends and outside resources. Reaching out to school counselors, teachers, and support groups will help you and your child feel that you are not alone. “A tween needs trusted adults to teach them how to grieve and provide them with compassionate companions that offer them the opportunities to mourn out loud,” says Yehl Marta
Creating a New Normal
Although life will never be the same, if children are allowed to fully mourn their loss, they can experience a positive childhood and even find deeper meaning in life. Unlike grownups, kids’ feelings of grief are intense and sporadic. At each stage of development, kids will revisit their loss and take new meaning from it. ” They will miss their parent in different ways and for different reasons as they grow up,” explains Jennifer Edwards, an expert in stress management.
While important for most children, it is crucial for preteens to meet and socialize with other kids going through a similar experience. Preteens need to feel “normal” and that they “fit in”. “This loss makes them different and sets them apart from their peers,” says Dr. Lippman. Preteens often have the sense that none of their friends understand what they are going through, which can make them feel intensely lonely. Jana Glass, Program Director of Kate’s Club, adds, “Socializing with other kids in similar situations is critical. Sharing feelings with peers breaks down the sense of isolation.”
It is important to integrate memories of the deceased parent into daily life. “Talking about the dead person may be painful at times, but is also a crucial part of the mourning and healing process,” says Deirdre Lewin. Roberta Temes, author of Solace: Finding Your Way Through Grief, suggests engaging in family projects, such as making a slideshow of photographs or collage, or writing a song, story or poem. Temes advises, “Don’t pretend the person never existed. State that you are sad when you are sad, and that you are thinking of the deceased when you are thinking of the deceased. Admit your distress and then demonstrate that you are going on with your life even though you feel so sad.”
Signs of Healthy Grieving
Dr. Robin Goodman considers it important for children to engage in different grief-related tasks. Over time, you should expect your child to:
- Accept the reality and permanence of death.
- Experience and cope with difficult emotional reactions.
- Adjust to changes in their lives and changes in their identity that result from the death.
- Develop new relationships or deepen existing ones.
- Maintain a continuing, healthy attachment to the deceased person through remembrance activities.
- Find some meaning in the death and learn about life or oneself.
- Continue through the normal developmental stages.