If grief is intensely painful and emotionally turbulent for adults, it is even more so for children, for they are less equipped to understand it. Further, they may be deeply affected by seeing the grown-ups in their lives grieving. However, while it may be destabilizing for them to see adult grief, they cannot learn without seeing it. To try to shield them entirely from honestly expressed emotional reactions to a loss may be confusing and, ultimately, detrimental.
While, as a society, we prattle on freely about sex, religion and various other social issues, we tend to be reticent when it comes to discussing death — particularly with children. Nonetheless, death gives adults an opportunity to teach the young about loss and grieving and to set an example with their approach.
When a profound loss is anticipated, or experienced, adults may be so grief-stricken themselves that they are unable to give their children the help they need and may elect to bring in a trained grief counselor to help with the situation. A counselor can help the children understand and deal with the situation — both the event itself and the grieving grown-ups.
As a proactive approach, including a grief counselor early on, to work with the children, may allow a family to steer clear of trouble later on.
Grief counselors can also coordinate their work with the adults, suggesting ways in which they can support the children. For instance, they can discuss funeral or memorial service arrangements. Depending on the age of a child, attending a ceremony may be very beneficial, but the events of the day should be fully explained in advance. A grief counselor might suggest that a young child attend a church service, but not an actual interment. Whether or not children are to be at a funeral becomes a very personal decision for a family, and a counselor can offer a balanced perspective based on training and experience.
It may be wise to arrange for a friend to look after your children at a service if you are afraid that you’ll be too distraught to care for them.
There are many ways to include a child in the event of a death so as to allow active participation and a sense of belonging. It may be therapeutic for a child to write in a journal, if he or she is old enough, or to help prepare for a reception after the service. It is crucial that they feel respected, needed and included.
It is natural for children to want to talk about death and to ask questions — lots of questions. The answers should be truthful and direct. Making up explanations for a young child as to how a loved one died, such as: ‘He just fell asleep and died”, with the intention of making the event less upsetting, isn’t going to be helpful at bedtime.
Teenagers are at a particularly vulnerable age. It is very important to treat them with respect, to include them in family decisions and allow them to share in the grieving. To try to distance them from the adults’ grief and preclude them from the arrangements may create lasting resentment. Recognize that they may seek solace with their circle of friends as well as with their own family.
If you decide to have a trained grief counselor work with your children, you should make sure that he or she will be culturally compatible. You might try to arrange a meeting with the counselor alone before involving the children to discuss your family’s approach to life, death and spiritual issues. Children are bound to be confused if a counselor has views that are radically different to those they have been taught.