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Helping Children Cope With Grief
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
When Someone Loved Dies
Adults grieve. So do children. As an adult or child, experiencing grief means to "feel," not just to "understand." Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Even before children are able to talk, they grieve when someone loved dies. And these feelings about the death become a part of their lives forever.
Caring adults, whether parents, relatives or friends, can help children during this time. If adults are open, honest and loving, experiencing the loss of someone loved can be a chance for children to learn about both the joy and the pain that comes from caring deeply for other people.
Talking About Death to Children
Adult sometimes have trouble facing death themselves. So open, honest discussions about death with children can be difficult. Yet adults who are able to confront, explore and learn from their own personal fears about death can help children when someone loved dies. As a result, children can form " a healthy attitude toward both life and death.
When a death occurs, children need to be surrounded by feelings of warmth, acceptance and understanding. Caring adults can provide this support.
A Caring Adult's Role
How adults respond when someone loved dies has a major effect on the way children react to the death. Sometimes, adults don't want to talk about the death, assuming that by doing so children will be spared some of the pain and sadness.
However, the reality is very simple: children will grieve, anyway.
Adults who are willing to talk openly about the death help children understand that grief is a natural feeling when someone loved had died. Children need adults to confirm that it's all right to be sad and to cry, and that the hurt they feel now won't last forever.
When ignored, children may suffer more from feeling isolated than from the actual death itself. Worse yet, they feel all alone in their grief.
Encourage Questions About Death
When someone loved had died, adults need to be open, honest and loving. Patiently, they need to answer questions about the death in language children can understand.
Adults shouldn't worry about having all the answers. The answers aren't as important as the fact that they're responding to the questions in a way that shows they care.
Children may repeat the same questions about the death again and again. It's natural. Repeating questions and getting answers helps them understand and adjust to the loss of someone loved.
Establish a Helping Relationship
Respond to children with sensitivity and warmth. Be aware of voice tone; maintain eye contact when talking about the death. What is communicated without words can be just as meaningful to children as what is actually said.
Let children know that their feelings will be accepted. Although some of their behavior may seem inappropriate, adults need to understand children during this stressful time, not judge their behavior or criticize.
Children need to know that adults want to understand their point of view. This commitment tells a child, "You're worthwhile; your feelings will be respected."
Sharing Religious Beliefs with a Child
Adults often wonder if they should share with children their religious beliefs regarding death. This is a complex issue; no simple guidelines are available.
Keep in mind that adults can only share with children those concepts they truly believe. Any religious explanations about death must also be described in concrete terms; children have difficulty understanding abstractions. The theological correctness of the information is less important at this time than the fact that the adult is communicating in a loving way.
Allow Children to Participate
Create an atmosphere that tells children that their thoughts, fears and wishes will be recognized when someone loved dies. This recognition includes the right to be part of planning the arrangements for the funeral.
Although children may not completely understand the ceremony surrounding the death, being involved in the planning of the funeral helps establish a sense of comfort and the understanding that life goes on even though someone loved has died.
Since the funeral of someone loved is a significant event, children should have the same opportunity to attend as any other member of the family. That's "allowed" to attend, but not "forced." Explain the purpose of the funeral: as a time to honor the person who has died; as a time to help, comfort and support each other and as a time to affirm that life goes on.
Viewing the body of someone loved who has died can also be a positive experience. It provides an opportunity to say "goodbye" and helps children accept the reality of the death. As with attending the funeral, however, seeing the body should not be forced.
Growing Through Grief
Grief is complex. It will vary from child to child. Caring adults need to communicate to children that this feeling is not one to be ashamed of or something to hide. Instead, grief is a natural expression of love for the person who died.
As a caring adult, the challenge is clear: children do not choose between grieving and not grieving; adults, on the other hand, do have a choice- to help or not to help children cope with grief.
With love and understanding, adults can guide children through this vulnerable time and help make the experience a valuable part of a child's personal growth and development.
Suggested Guidelines Concerning Children and Grief
Be a good observer. See how each child is behaving. Don't rush in with explanations. Usually, it's more helpful to ask exploring questions than to give quick answers.
When someone loved dies, don't expect children's reactions to be obvious and immediate. Be patient and b e available.
Children are part of the family, too. And reassurance comes from the presence of loving people. Children feel secure in the care of gentle arms and tenderness.
When describing the death of someone loved to a child, use simple and direct language.
Be honest. Express your own feelings regarding the death. By doing so, children have a model for expressing their own feelings. It's all right to cry, too.
Allow children to express a full range of feelings. Anger, guilt, despair and protest are natural reactions to the death of someone loved.
Listen to children, don't just talk to them.
No one procedure or formula will fit all children, either at the time of death or during the months that follow. Be patient, flexible and adjust to individual needs.
Adults must recognize their own personal feelings about death. Until they consciously explore their own concerns, doubts, and fears about death, it will be difficult to support children when someone loved dies.
Helping Bereaved Siblings Heal
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Next to the death of a parent, the death of a sibling can be the most traumatic event in a child's life. Why? Because not only has a family member died, but a family member for whom the child probably had very strong and ambivalent feelings.
As those of us who have brothers and sisters know, sibling relationships are characterized by anger, jealousy and a fierce closeness and love-a highly complex melange of emotion. This complexity colors the surviving child's grief experience.
A Caring Adult's Role
How adults respond when someone loved dies has a major effect on the way children react to the death. Sometimes, adults don't want to talk abut the death because they want to spare children from some of the pain and sadness.
And for the same well-intentioned but misguided reason, adults hide their own feelings of grief from children.
What bereaved siblings really need is for adults to be open and honest with them about the death. They need to see that grief is as natural a part of life as loving. Children need adults to confirm that it's all right to be sad and to cry, and that the hurt they feel now won't last forever.
When ignored, bereaved siblings may suffer more from feeling isolated than from the actual death itself. Worse yet, they may feel all alone in their grief.
What A Surviving Sibling Feels
Each person's grief is unique and changes from day to day. So, it is impossible to predict what a specific child will feel after her brother or sister dies. If you want to help, the most important thing you can do is to listen and to accept any and all feelings the surviving sibling expresses.
However, I have had the privilege to counsel hundreds of bereaved siblings. Among many other special lessons, they have taught me they often feel:
Guilt. For a number of reasons, bereaved siblings often feel guilty. Their power of "magical thinking"-believing that thoughts cause actions-might make them think they literally caused the death. "John died because I sometimes wished he would go away forever" is a common response among children who haven't been given the concrete details of the sibling's death and who haven't been assured that they were not at fault.
Relief. A child may also feel relief as well as pain when a sibling dies. Responses such as "Now no one will take my things" or "I'm glad I have a room to myself" are natural and do not mean the child didn't love his or her sibling. It is important that you provide an atmosphere in which the child feels safe to express whatever he or she may be feeling.
Fear. When a child's brother or sister dies, another young person has died. So, for a child, confronting this reality can mean confronting the possibility of one's own death. Be prepared to honestly but reassuringly answer questions such as "Will I die, too?" The death of a sibling can also make a bereaved child fear that one or all of his other family members will die, too, leaving him alone.
Confusion. One eight-year-old girl I counseled after the death of her brother asked me, "Am I still a big sister?" This little girl was obviously struggling with the confusing task of redefining herself, both within the family unit and the world at large. The answer to her question, of course, is both yes and no, but ultimately it is a question the child must answer herself. Adults can help, however, by letting the child teach them what this confusion is like.
Siblings Can Be "Forgotten Mourners"
When a child dies, most of the grief support from family members and friends gets focused on the parents. Indeed, losing a child may be the most painful experience in life, and those of us who are parents readily empathize with and offer our support to the dead child's parents. And the parents themselves are often so overwhelmed by their loss that they can barely help themselves get through the day.
So what about the surviving siblings? Though we can't quantify grief, we can say that siblings are often as profoundly impacted by the death as their parents are. And in some ways they are even more deserving of our attention because they are children.
Let's not allow bereaved siblings to be forgotten mourners. If you are a bereaved parent, share your grief with your surviving children and make time to understand theirs. If you just can't make yourself emotionally available right now, gently explain this to the child and appoint another adult as grief helper for the time being.
Allow Siblings to Participate
Create an atmosphere that tells bereaved children that their thoughts, fears and wishes will be recognized. This recognition includes the right to help plan and participate in the funeral.
Although children may not completely understand the ceremony surrounding the death, being involved in the funeral helps establish a sense of comfort and the understanding that life goes on even though someone has died.
Since the funeral is a significant event, siblings-no matter how young-should have the same opportunity to attend as any other member of the family. Encourage, but never force. Explain the purpose of the funeral: a time to honor the person who died, a time to support each other, a time to affirm that life goes on.
When they choose to, siblings can participate in the funeral by sharing a favorite memory, reading a poem or lighting a candle. You might also suggest they place a memento or photo in the casket.
For siblings, viewing the body of the brother or sister who died can also be a positive experience. It provides an opportunity to say goodbye and helps them accept the reality of the death. As with attending the funeral, however, seeing the body should not be forced.
Talking To Children About Death
Adults sometimes have trouble facing death themselves. So open, honest discussions with children about death can be difficult. Yet adults who are able to confront, explore and learn from their own personal fears about death can help surviving siblings.
Encouraging questions about the death is another way to help bereaved siblings. Children may repeat the same questions over and over again. This is natural. Repetition and consistent, patient answers on your part help the sibling understand and slowly accept the death.
One final word about children's questions: Don't feel you need to have all the answers. Your answers aren't as important as the fact that you're responding in a way that shows you care.
Let Children Be Children
Children need to be children-especially when they are hurting. Never tell a surviving sibling, "You need to take care of your mom and dad (or younger siblings) now." When you force a bereaved child to grow up too soon, you don't allow him the time and space he needs to mourn in his own developmentally appropriate way.
Help Siblings Embrace Their Memories
When a sibling dies, the surviving children must go through the long, arduous process of realizing and acknowledging that their brother or sister is gone forever. The permanence of death is difficult for everyone, even adults, to accept.
Thank goodness for memories. Remembering the child who died is an appropriate way for the sibling to continue that precious relationship. Encourage her to talk about her memories, both good and bad. Show her ways to capture her memories, such as by creating a scrapbook or writing a poem. On special occasions like birthdays and holidays, help her remember what it was like to celebrate with her brother or sister. Remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.
Guidelines for Helping Grieving Children
Be a good observer. A bereaved child's behavior can be very telling about her emotions.
Be patient. Children's grief isn't typically obvious and immediate.
Be honest. Don't lie to children about death. They need to know that it's permanent and irreversible. Don't use euphemisms that cloud these facts. Use simple and direct language.
Be available. Bereaved children need to know that they can count on the adults in their lives to listen to them, support them and love them.
Listen. Let each child teach you what grief is like for him. And don't rush in with explanations. Usually it's more helpful to ask exploring questions than to supply cookie-cutter answers.
Helping a Grieving Friend in the Workplace
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
How Can You Help?
A friend or acquaintance in your workplace has experienced the death of someone loved. You want to help, but you are not sure how to go about it. This article will help you turn your cares and concerns into positive action.
You Have An Important Role
Your support of a fellow employee can make a real difference in how he survives right now. Being present to a co-worker in grief means you are giving one of life's most precious gifts-yourself. Do not underestimate how your efforts to help can make a real difference for him. Your supportive presence, particularly when he is just returning to work and in the weeks and months ahead, can make an important difference in how your coworker heals.
Attending the Funeral
Even if you didn't know the person who died, if the funeral will be local and especially if the person who died was a member of your co-worker's immediate family, it is very appropriate for you to attend the funeral. After all, funerals are for the living, and right now your co-worker needs all the support she can get. She will appreciate your presence and acknowledgment of the loss.
Understanding Your Co-Worker's Journey
Your coworker is faced with an overwhelming journey. While the need to mourn is normal and necessary, it is often frightening, painful, and lonely. Your coworker will not function "normally" in the workplace. Be sensitive and realize that she will have difficulty with attention, concentration, memory and lack of motivation.
Try to be patient and help out whenever you can. Increasing your knowledge about the experience of grief will help you better understand what your coworker is encountering.
Reach out to your coworker in grief. Do not anticipate that she will be able to reach out to you. Let her know that you are aware of her loss and that you are thinking about her. It can be very appropriate to say, "I'm sorry that your mother died, and I want you to know that I'm thinking of you." This lets your co-worker know that you are available to listen and can be sensitive to her feelings of sadness and loss. A touch of your hand, a look in your eye, or even a hug often communicates more than any words could ever say. If you personally don't know the coworker very well, join with others in sending flowers or a sympathy card.
Listen With Your Heart
If your coworker wants to talk about his grief, LISTEN. While the workplace cannot become a counseling center, listening is a small but important gift you can give. Your physical presence and commitment to listen without judging are critical helping tools.
Don't worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you. Your co-worker may relate the same story about the death over and over again. Listen patiently. Realize that "telling the story" is how healing occurs.
Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful mourners. Clichés are trite comments often intended to provide simple solutions to difficult realities. Mourners are often told, "God only challenges people with what they can handle" or "Time heals all wounds" or "Think of all you still have to be thankful for." Comments like these are not constructive. Instead, they hurt because they diminish the very real and very painful loss of a unique person.
Realize That Griefbursts Will Occur
Sometimes heightened periods of sadness will overwhelm the grieving person at work. These times can come out of nowhere. Sometimes all it takes to bring on a griefburst is a familiar sound, a smell, a phrase. While you may feel helpless, allow your co-worker to feel the sorrow and hurt. And realize tears are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with death.
Don't Be Judgmental
Some people return to work after the death of someone loved and act as if "everything is OK." Don't judge your coworker who returns to work quickly. Sometimes, the routine of the workplace provides comfort and support. However, do stay available should she want to share her grief at a later time.
Activate Support Systems
If appropriate, mention your co-worker's loss and need for compassionate support to other coworkers who can offer help. The entire staff might benefit from an in-service that sensitizes then to the grief journey and how they can help support their coworker.
If You Are A Supervisor
Be careful about assigning new tasks or responsibilities right now. Flexible personnel policies will help the grieving worker survive during this naturally painful time. If you have an employee assistance program, be certain the employee is made aware of its availability.
Our society in general doesn't always respond well to people in grief; the workplace can be even worse. You can help by acting as your grieving employee's advocate if he needs extra time off or other special assistance. It's the right thing to do. Besides, if the employee isn't allowed to first attend to his grief, he may not be able to effectively attend to his work.
If The Person Who Died Was A Coworker
When someone you have worked with dies, you will be faced with grief yourself. You may find yourself thinking about him all the time. You may feel guilty, as if you could have prevented the death somehow. You may feel angry, especially if the death was sudden or untimely. You may feel vulnerable, frightened or depressed.
All of these grief feelings are normal and necessary. Find someone you can talk to, perhaps another co-worker who is experiencing the same feelings. Talk openly with family members and friends about your co-workers death.
Understanding The Significance Of The Loss
As a result of the death, your coworker's like is under reconstruction. Keep in mind that grief is unique. No two people respond to death in exactly the same say. Be patient. Don't force a specific timetable for healing. Be gentle, sensitive, and compassionate in all of your helping efforts.
"Grief is a long, painful journey. As the friend of a grieving co-worker, you can choose to help make the journey more tolerable. Tell your co-worker how sorry you are and listen if she wants to talk. Be available to her in the difficult weeks and months ahead. Your support will help her more than you can imagine."
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.