Share Truth with Child When Loss Hurts

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D.

"If only they had told me what was going on," is the cry of many grown ups who as children had suffered loss, death, parental separation, or divorce.  As children they knew something terrible had happened, but everyone around them was trying to pretend very hard that nothing was wrong.  They felt confused, angry, and even scared.  Now as adults, hopefully they will avoid making the same mistake.

Most grieving adults tend to worry that if they let their guards down and let the child see that they are hurting, the child will fall apart.  As a result, they put up a brave front in presence of the child.

Some believe that their solemn facade will protect the child from possible anxieties and fears.  Actually, it teaches the child the wrong thing, "Hide your feelings."  If and when the child fails to contain his emotions inside himself, he will feel he has let you down.

It won't harm a child to know that you are sad and hurting.  Let a child learn that it is quite natural to be sad when someone we love dies.  However, assure the child that you will always not be feeling this sad and "bad," and that you will get better with time.  This may encourage the child to express his own feelings.

Give a brief but factual account of the illness, accident, or whatever may have been the cause of the loss.  Sending children to their room or just assuring them that "everything is going to be all right" is not very helpful.

Children have an uncanny ability to sense the sad and the "bad."  If we don't explain what is going on, then a child is left to imagine his worst fears.  When children "smell" something is going on they feel even more anxious and this is when the secrecy and glibness can be more harmful than the actual truth.

This doesn't mean that a child won't get scared or cry when he sees the surviving parent sob or in anguish.  My advice to the parent is to tell the child, "I am hurting pretty bad and have to cry, but I am okay." 

If you as a parent, sense that your child believes his behavior toward you has caused a problem, assure him that he has not done anything to upset you.  Explain to the child that after some time the hurt will go away and you and the child won't always feel sad.

Children may ask the same questions time and again until they can come to terms with it.  After the loss, young children may repeatedly ask questions about death.  For example:  What is death:  What makes people die?  What happens to people when they die?  Where do people go after death?  Answer patiently, and occasionally ask the child what he thinks the answer is.

Some children may not be ready to talk.  They may not ask any questions about what has happened.  They may start withdrawing and become very quiet.

Don't force them to talk.  Explain simply what has happened and leave it at that, but continue to spend regularly one-on-one time with the child.  This may help the child to start talking later when she is ready.

Will I die too?  A death in the family can make a child feel vulnerable to death.  A child may develop fears about his own death.  For instance, if a parent dies in a car wreck, the child may develop a fear of riding in a car. By talking about the fear and gradually encouraging a child to try to do a little at a time that which he is afraid of, may help to overcome such fears.  Other times, professional help may be required to tactfully reduce such fears.

Go over the family pictures together with the child, sharing the memories. Let the child have something belonging to the deceased person to keep in his room.  Encourage the child to draw a picture of the lost person, to plant a tree, or to build something, in the memory of the person.

If a child is old enough to write a letter, encourage him to do the same to get his feelings out.  Use drawings, paintings, dolls, sand play, and similar other materials for the child to play and express his feelings through play.  Maybe the child will like to write a little poem or a story about the deceased person.  

Support and acknowledge the child's feelings.  When the child expresses feelings, whether sad, fearful, angry, or other kinds, listen closely and stay with the child's feeling.  Don't rush to cheer up the child, or to buy a new toy, or to divert the attention of the child.  Talking it out, and staying with the feeling rather than avoiding it, helps to get a handle on the feeling of loss.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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