When Children Grieve
By Erin Darst Hein
My mom remembers she was rocking my new baby brother, it was very late and everyone else was asleep, when my little sister (sleep rumpled and husky voiced) appeared at her knee: “Mom, you know those babies you lost? Didn’t ya ever go look for 'em?
My sister was five when she said that to our mom. She had been anxious about the baby from the moment he came home. She had apparently overheard my parents talking about their struggles with "losing babies" through miscarriage and with the literal interpretation of the innocent, misunderstood. She was worried the new baby could be ‘lost’ too and she felt a responsibility to protect him.
We don't often know how our children perceive or receive the adult subjects we discuss in their presence, but we know we cannot shelter them from all the harsh realities of life. Shielding your child from any hurt or loss is instinctual, but when supporting and guiding them through the grieving process, too much shielding can actually be detrimental. Children need compassionate directness and honesty in the wake of loss. Most grief counselors recommend you use simple, direct language like “died” or “killed” rather than “lost” or “passed away” to help them understand, gently, that death is permanent.
It’s also important, children and adults alike, to make a point to talk about the person who is gone. “Your Daddy loved this meal,” or “Grandma used to sing that song. Do you remember?”. Don’t ever be afraid that you (or they) might break down. Sharing memories together, even if they are painful, is healing.
Another important thing you can do to help a grieving child is to give them the space to heal at their own pace. A child won’t process their loss in the same way you or I would, and, of course, every child is different. It is normal for a child to react with crying and acting out, but its also common for children to act very accepting and calm or to ‘take breaks’ from their grief to laugh and play. A grief counselor can be an absolutely amazing resource to help you navigate the process, especially if you are concerned about the way your child is processing their loss.
When families come in to Darst Funeral Home to make arrangements, we encourage them to involve children who were very close to the person who has passed in the 'celebration' of that person's life. A child can help you choose flowers or prayer cards or even participate in the actual service if they want to be involved. We also encourage caregivers to have the child write a letter or draw a picture for the person and we can tuck it privately in the casket to be buried or cremated with the deceased. Allowing a child to participate can be an important stepping stone for them to navigate the grieving process.
Unfortunately, there is no road map. Not for children. Not for us. On the best of days, grief is a one-day-at-a-time process and on the worst days, all we can do is take one breath at a time. Grief is hard enough when we are navigating it alone and it can be completely overwhelming to guide a child at the same time. Reach out to us if you need assistance and we can connect you to resources to help you get to the other side.
You can find more support on our resources page at http://www.darstfuneralhome.com/Resources/Grief-Support and you can contact the Darst Funeral Home staff any time.
You CAN do this. You are not alone.
Erin is the daughter of John Darst of Darst of Darst Funeral Home. She lives in Kingwood with her husband Evan and their 3 children Jack (5), Caroline (3), and Ian (1). You can reach her at erin@darstfuneralhome.
Read More in the series:Part 1: Earliest Memories
Part 2: Holidays on a cemetery
Part 3: This Little Light of Mine
Part 4: Genealogy
Part 5: The Man Behind The Magic
Part 6: No Cancer But a Dose of Perpective
Part 7: A Year Full of Yes
Part 8: Last Moments and First Steps
Part 9: Facing Fathers Day Without Your Father
Part 10: When Children Grieve
Part 11: From Velvet to Violets: Shedding New Light on Saying Goodbye
Part 12: If it Won't Open, It's Not Your Door
Part 13: Love, After All
Part 14: New Beginnings
Part 15: Not Goodbye, Just Goodnight
Part 16: Holding Space for Dying
Part 17: Grieving and Pets: A Family Affair
This article originally appeared in Dockline Magazine in September 2016.