Last month, I lost a friend. A family lost a mom and a wife. A school lost a teacher. The world lost one of those true gems who embodied life, loved others, gave selflessly, lived in the moment, and showed all of us how to live, love and laugh. After a lengthy illness, perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised. But we are. Taken too soon is an understatement.
While many who loved and knew this woman are grieving the loss of a friend, but there are dozens of children who are wondering where she is. Or how that teacher with the wild curls and infectious laugh is not here. Or how the mom of a friend won’t be here to see her daughter start high school. Many of these children will bounce back long before the adults do; children are resilient that way. Many children will ask questions, which will require honesty, skill and compassion from adults. After asking questions, they may move on or they may ask more questions.
It seems like we’ve had to experience grief and loss too many times with children in recent years, whether that loss was personal, local, national or global. Our digital world brings tragedy close to us, even when we are not directly impacted. When that loss does hit close to home, adults have to both process their own emotions and help children do the same, often when much of the scenario fails to make sense. There’s loads of research out there on helping kids with loss and narratives that illustrate how challenging and rewarding that can be.
Here are four strategies that I find particularly helpful:
- Encourage questions and respond with honesty and openness. Give children sufficient information to answer their questions, keeping in mind their age and development. Generally, kids under five are very concrete. Beyond that, the wheels may be spinning. Guide them and give them information before they worry or soak in misinformation. Sometimes their questions sound deeper than they are – ask clarifying questions to get to the heart of the meaning.
- Maintain an atmosphere of openness so that the conversations can evolve. Be open to talking when your child initiates conversation or responds to your inquiries, but don’t push. Be prepared to repeat information or answer the same questions. Children may need multiple exposures to information before making sense of it. Be honest about those questions that you don’t have answers to and offer your spiritual beliefs or wonderings if those apply.
- Feel and name feelings. Kids of all ages benefit from hearing emotions named and seeing how to manage those emotions, particularly the uncomfortable ones. It’s okay to let them see you cry. It’s okay to let them see you show empathy and compassion. It’s even okay to let them see you feel anger and find constructive and healthy outlets.
- Retell the stories. Help kids retell the stories they have from that person. Co-create the narrative they will hang on to by asking questions and getting to the heart of the matter. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson argue in their book, The Whole-Brain Child, that this story telling helps us develop explicit memories, allowing us to deal with loss (or any event) intentionally. Without this narrative, we tend to cling to those implicit memories, particularly those around fear and frustration, and then forming expectations about how the world works, which may or may not be accurate. When we are unaware of these implicit memories, they become “buried land mines” which are often debilitating. Storytelling allows us to shine a light upon implicit memories, become aware of the situation, and deal with things in an intentional way. Children, teens and often adults, need others to help facilitate this process.
Experiencing and talking about loss and grief is part of the impermanence of life and comes with a whole set of negative feelings we’d like to avoid. Modeling for children how we move through this process in healthy ways is essential. Showing them that there are lessons to be learned from life experiences will help develop resiliency and provide a framework for the next time they experience loss.
For many teachers, spending our time with young children is punctuated by their candor, enthusiasm and remarkable ability to live in the moment. At times of loss, being in the presence of children can help adults with the process their own emotions and help children develop strategies of their own. As we watch children explore and laugh and grow, they are tethered to what is here and now, not to what might have been or what has been lost. This is a beautiful gift we can receive from children and perhaps, take to heart and benefit from ourselves.
This is precisely this energy and love of life that many of us will remember in our friend. She embodied living in the moment with love, honesty and a unique sense of humor. As we help children process any trauma, loss or grief, it’s important we let them express their feelings, process the experience but also see that life moves forward with their presence and energy.