3 Steps To Helping Your Child Understand And Process Grief

Grief is devastating for anyone.

As an adult, you have an advantage in grieving. That advantage is your brain development.

All things being equal, by the time your brain is fully developed (around age 25) you have learned how to process grief. If you haven’t encountered grief before, hopefully you have learned to seek help in processing your grief.

Children’s Brains Struggle To Process Grief

For a child, the lack of brain development means that processing grief is very difficult.

For an undeveloped brain, comprehending death and the existential issues around it, is extremely difficult. Adults struggle with this. So children will struggle even more without the tools yet to be developed to help them.

Grief In Children Resurfaces At Each Developmental Stage.

The younger the child, the more undeveloped will be their ability to process their grief. It is now known that grief in children will resurface at different stages in their childhood and even into adult life.

It is important to be aware of these difficulties and be ready to support your child.

The developing brain is learning. That is how the brain develops. But without support, the brain cannot learn. The brain needs to learn how to process Grief.

Attending To The Trauma Of Grief

Grief is a trauma. It is dysregulating. A child experiencing grief will be thrown into a major fight/flight/freeze stress response. They will also lose their connection to others and feel very isolated and alone.

Many people think they just have to sit their child down and talk to them and that will help. But a dysregulated brain can’t learn or reason so talking to a child in this situation will not work.

The 3 Steps

There are 3 steps to reaching your child and helping them to learn how to process their grief.

The steps are as follows:

Step 1. Regulate

The first thing you need to do with your child is help them regulate their fight/flight/freeze response and become calmer.

One of the best ways to do this is to be as calm as you can. Research has shown that children cope well with traumatic events when their parents remain relatively calm and can maintain as much as possible regular routines. The main thing is that your child feels safe. They need to feel that you can still protect them. In a world that has just fallen apart with the loss of someone important, knowing you are still there is vital.

Do the best you can

Obviously, if you are grieving as well, it is going to be hard to regulate yourself. You are likely to be crying and finding it hard to focus.

This is the pain of parenting. There are times when you have to put your own needs aside to attend to the needs of your children. It is natural for you to do that, and it may be necessary. But don’t put off attending to your own needs for long. It is okay to be crying when you seek to regulate your child.

After all, your child needs to see you grieving to learn it is okay to be sad and cry, but life still goes on.

One of the best ways to regulate is to hold your child. That helps them to feel safe and also gives you a sense of safety as well.

Step 2. Relate

Holding your child is part of the next step as well.

You help your child to regulate, to feel safer and still cared for.

Now you help them by establishing a connection. Holding your child will help them feel connected to you. This will mean they feel less isolated and alone.

Being Attuned To Your Child

Relating also involved being attuned to your child and their needs. It means you will stop and seek to understand what your child is thinking and feeling. Depending on their age, this may involve (when appropriate) making a general statement such as:

“It is really sad and frightening that x has died.”

This would work best for a young child who may still be learning to understand their emotions. Acknowledging what you sense they are experiencing helps them to feel understood.

For an older child you may ask them what they are feeling. Or you may wonder if they are feeling sad because you are.

It is important to not hide your feelings and allow your child to see you are sad too but that your sadness won’t stop you caring for them.

Be Attuned For A Long Time

Remember that I earlier mentioned that grief in children takes longer and is revisited at each developmental stage.

It is important to keep that in mind. Even after the initial period of adjustment to death your child will continue to grieve.

Always make sure you seek to understand your child. This maintains a connection between the two of you and is also comforting for your child. An attuned parent is one who provides safety and security. Something all children need, but grieving children need it more.

Step 3. Reason

Once your child is regulated and secure in their relationship with you, you can then reason with them.

You can support your child to express their feelings should they want to. You can support your child according to their developmental stage to reflect, learn, remember, articulate and learn how to live with their loss.

How Do I Support My Child To Learn?

There are many aids you can use to help you support your child through their grief. These aids will help them to learn healthy ways of processing grief. This will serve them well now and in later life with other losses.

There are many age-appropriate books you can read to your child. Your local library is a good source of these. If you send your child to a counsellor many will have these resources as well. I have a range of books I use with younger children.

For teenagers, who are already exploring the more existential issues of life as part of their teen development, a more existential approach that emphasises philosophical discussions mixed with some helpful facts about grief and its impacts is really helpful.

Can I Help?

Sometimes you and/or your child/ren will need help from a grief trained counsellor. It can be very helpful to learn what is normal in grieving both for yourself and your child. If you need help, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please
click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

I Just Want to Vent. Why do people want to give me advice?

I think we have all been there. I certainly have. You just want to vent about something and all you get back is advice. It leads you to feel that you haven’t been heard and makes you feel worse.

Maybe you have found yourself in a position of giving someone advice when they didn’t want it. It is easy to do.

Unfortunately we live in a society where we are encouraged to give advice and not listen.

So how do you change that?

How do you ensure you don’t fall for the giving advice trap?

How do you ensure you will be allowed to vent without getting unwanted advice?

  1. If someone is venting to you listen. If you feel you have a helpful opinion or advice to give then ask if it is okay to share it. If they say no then don’t give the advice. Just listen.

When you listen, pay attention to what they are saying. Don’t try to construct some response you think will be helpful. While you are constructing that response you are not listening.

Just listen. Let them know you are listening. Acknowledge how difficult/ frustrating/ upsetting what they are describing is/was.

  1. If you want to vent to someone, ask them first if they are in a position to listen. If they say no, then don’t vent to them. This ensures you don’t dump all your stress and emotions onto another person who may not be in the right space to hear you.

When you need to talk to someone it can be hard if you can’t find anyone to vent to but keep trying. There will be someone who will listen. Remember it is also hard if you are not in the space to listen if someone vents to you.

Communication is about respect. Respect the other person who is venting to you. Respect the other person who may not be in a position to hear your vent.

Grieving as a Community

We all remember terrible incidents over our lifetimes when there are deaths of a large number of people. They are shocking. But nothing is as shocking to the world community than the death of a large number of children.

The horrifying number of children killed in American schools by mass shooters is distressing. So too are school bus crashes when multiple children are killed.

The Community Horror of Tragedy

A large part of what most people feel in the wake of such incidents is horror at what the parents are going through.

As a community we also feel the horror of those beautiful lives that have ended far too soon.

For the families of these children there is terrible grief, especially when more than one child has died. But
I am not going to talk about that today.

What I am going to talk about is how we as a community grieve the loss of lives, especially those of children.

The Cost of The Loss of an Individual

How do you quantify the loss of a child?

When a child dies their physical body and presence on earth is lost. But there is more than that which is lost.

There is the potential that is lost. Who might that child have become? How will the future be impacted by their absence? What relationships will never form because they are not there? What contribution may they have made to the world? What might the descendants that will now never be born have contributed to the world? How will their death change the course of our lives?

What The Loss Means to Family and Community

How do you quantify what the loss of each child means to their family and friends?

How do you quantify what the loss of each child means to their community?

As each layer of society is affected by the loss of each child, the impacts radiate out into the next layer and the next layer. Very much like ripples in a pond.

How Individuals Are Impacted

As citizens of this earth, we are all impacted by these mass deaths.

We feel deeply for the families. Many of us will imagine how we would feel if it was our own child and we feel such grief for the parents. We feel their pain and it hurts. Many will cry over the pain of the parents.

As an individual in a community you will likely grieve for those lost lives. It may not consume you in the way it would if the child was a family member, but you will still feel the impact of their loss. Your brain will not be as impacted as you had no neural connection to the child, but you will feel the pain of caring for a fellow human who has suffered the unimaginable loss of a child.

As you absorb the horror of these losses, your own grief for those you have lost in the past may surface. And that is something you will need to attend to.

Secondary Trauma

The deaths of so many and the horror you feel is known as secondary trauma. You may not have personally been involved, but you can put yourself in the place of those who have been personally involved. When you do that, you can feel the horror they are feeling.

Don’t fear secondary trauma. It is a beautiful reminder of how interconnected we humans are. We are not isolated communities in separate countries. We are all citizens of the earth. One large interconnected mass of humanity.

We Live In A Connected World

It is hard, in this world of mass communication and heavy news coverage, to avoid being exposed to terrible tragedies. And would you want to live your life unaware of the need to show compassion for others?

From devastating house fires, school shootings, earthquakes, tsunamis, bushfires, floods and more you experience so much of the horror of the world. You may not hear of every tragedy, but the ones you hear about are difficult enough.

What Can I Do?

When something terrible happens on the other side of the world, or the other side of your community, what do you do? What can you do? It is hard to feel anything but helpless in these situations. What can you as an individual do?

When something terrible happens there is such sadness. You may not personally be involved but you still feel sad. Maybe you even feel guilty that you are enjoying life with your family in your home. You may well long to rush out to offer comfort to those who are hurting.

So often after terrible events the community draws together. The number of people who donate money to assist others caught up in disasters is one such instance. After floods, the people who turn up to help with the clean up is another instance. Communities draw together and offer support. In large disasters help comes from all around the world.

Community Healing

This drawing together of people is part of the healing of the community. Honouring the lives that were lost is another way of healing. Ensuring changes are made to reduce the likelihood of the incident happening again is another way of healing. As is setting up disaster protocols and teams to respond more effectively to any future incidents.

The pain of what happened will always remain, but the community will move forward with the sadness of what has happened.

The Power of Compassion

Importantly all will remember that compassion is a powerful tool to give to others. And you will do well to remember that you are a member of a community. It may seem you are alone, but in reality you are not.

If a tragedy leaves you feeling unable to cope. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. That may involve talking to understanding friends, or seeing a counsellor.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you process these difficult events and your own grief, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz