Help my Family to Grieve
Grief is a normal, natural and inevitable response to loss, and can affect every part of our life. It is varied and different for everyone, including children and adolescents.
Common grief reactions (Adults and children)
- Anxiety (including separation anxiety)
- Behaviour changes
- Changes in eating pattern
- Physical complaints
- School/work problems
- Sexual difficulties
- Shock and disbelief
- Sleep difficulties
Death hits everyone…
and when it hits your family there is no greater pain than the loss of a loved one.
Pain is Pain!
Grief isn’t only a private loss, many people experience grief in their everyday work. Take a moment to think about police officers, fire fighters, railroad staff, defence personnel, rescue workers, and the medical community. I want to say a special thank you to those people now. They face some of the most tragic deaths and continue to support their community day after day. They are certainly special people. Thank you!
At times hearing about someone’s death can cause a person to experience vicarious traumatization. Even when people are not physically present, they can be strongly affected by the picture in their mind of the experience, and may have obsessive thoughts of this situation.
Let’s take a further look at your family….
Children (under 5) are often unable to understand death and often look for how the person will return. Within these times, it is best for parents or caregivers to avoid saying that a person has ‘gone to sleep’ as the confusion just increases for the child. This age allows them to think that their thoughts, feelings or wishes actually caused the actions of themselves or someone else. This is a classic way of young children thinking they contributed in some way to the death. That is a lot of guilt for a young person to carry!
As the child gets a little older (between 5 to 10 years old), they understand that death is final, and that it happens to everyone. They have the ability to understand that people can die because they are sick or they have had some kind of accident. As they reach adolescence, and their concept of death becomes more abstract, they understand the long term effects of loss and death. It is important at this age to check in on your adolescent, as they are trying to increase their independence at this point, so they may show less mourning, or sadness over the loss of a loved one. They may not want to show their parents or caregivers that they are vulnerable. Each child will grieve in their own way, and usually at their own pace. Emotions may come and go.
Of course there are times when people are content to see that their loved one has passed as they are no longer suffering or in pain, or there was a story I read the other day where a couple who were married for 73 years died within 28 hours of the other, and their funeral was ‘shared with each other’ in the same church where they were married. They were both in their 90’s. This often puts a gentle smile on people’s faces. However, from my experience, grief is experienced by different people under different circumstances and is very personal. For example, when a death is tragic, the person is too young, and you all have your own personal story that goes with some of those comments…I think we all try to undo the death or believe it didn’t happen. This is a normal part of grief for some people. Some people will slowly move on from the sadness, and be able to celebrate the life of the person who died. Whilst they miss the person, they will be able to function in their daily lives, and begin living their life again.
However, for some people, sometimes the pain doesn’t heal over time.
Sometimes people feel that life has stopped, and others may feel that if they stop feeling pain that they are dishonouring their loved one. Others feel blame, horror, anger, grief, guilt, and there is no place to hide. Sometimes time does not heal all pain. Sometimes the suffering is so intense that the person just can’t think peacefully of their deceased love one. Whilst depression, confusion, and disconnection from others are common feelings when someone is grieving, when it doesn’t stop, they are not able to enjoy life, they focus on death and talk about dying or committing suicide, they feel hopeless, or turn to drugs and alcohol, neglect their personal hygiene, withdraw from others, and this continues for a couple of months after the death, external support may be required to help them through the process.
Supporting your loved ones
However, before, during or after seeking external support, you can continue to help your loved ones. Here are a few ways to support your family:
- Give age-appropriate explanations and avoid abstract explanations
- Talk about the situation. Encourage children to ask as many questions as they need to so that they can process their emotions and feelings in their own way
- Be there for your children and loved ones. Just be patient
- Feel comfortable in asking how they are
- Don’t show judgement to answers given by family members – just be there for them, and listen to what they are saying and how they are feeling
- Show them it is ok to grieve in a healthy way – Model healthy grieving
- It is great to reminisce. Share stories, watch home movies, look at photos. These are great active ways to remember the person in a loving way. Making a scrap book for children is a great way for them to have something concrete to turn to when they miss their loved one.
- Visit the grave or resting place
- We all need ways of expressing ourselves. This can be done through singing, playing music or an instrument, painting, drawing, writing poetry or letters, pottery, exercise, dance, and the list goes on…
- Rituals are an important part of moving through grief. For example, you may think about letting your young person attend the funeral, or you may have a going away ritual yourself by writing messages on balloons and letting them go in a special place.
- Parents don’t like seeing their children in pain. Don’t try to fix pain by avoiding or distracting the person. This just creates a host of other issues for the person. Let them openly grieve in a safe, loving and supported way.
- Routines are always important to keep. It is important to keep life going in a normal way, which includes the same house rules, standards of discipline, ect. Children and young people will need that consistency. It helps them to feel safe.
- Avoid unnecessary separations