Difficult Conversations

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A few weeks ago, I saw this sentence as the beginning of a post on social media from a mom in our community referencing this very topic.  She said,

"How do you explain things to kiddos that you don't fully understand as an adult?"

How full of depth is that thought!  This was the thing that inspired these posts.  Any grief is hard, but when it hits a whole community or when it is due to the death of a child, it can be especially hard for caregivers to feel confident about their responses to children.  I pray that these concepts can help you as a parent be present for your child in a time of grief.

This post is all about the loss of a child's young friend or cousin or sibling, but can be applied to many different specifics of grief. Sometimes immediate family does have hospice services that help with these conversations. Sometimes children get to have conversations with school counselors or through school-wide grief programs, but because children grieve differently than adults, its important for adults in their life to be aware and to be willing to listen. Children grieve differently than adults.  Their grief might pop up suddenly; they'l ask questions;  then they go off to play and might not ask again for days or weeks. Here are resources on how to have those initial conversations with your children written by professional counselors who work with children.  

What do I say?

Advice from professional private counselor Dana Haluska Melton

It's so difficult to help our children when we ourselves sometimes cannot wrap our minds around tragedy. I always give this advice:  Sometimes you don't say anything (as the adult). You listen and just be present for your child. When I say "present" I don't mean physically present but I mean emotionally and spiritually present. Make sure you are not distracted by anything else. (electronics, phones, people, chores Etc..) Make eye contact, cuddle, hold your child or just play... In addition, only answer what they ask as simply as possible.

Depending on a child's stage of development he or she may not need a lot of explanation. Allow them to lead the conversation and only answer what they ask. For example...when my Grandmother died, my daughter was 6 and she often would ask, "Is Bubba dead?" I would respond "Yes". She would often times go and play and other times she would say "I miss Bubba." I would respond "I do too." and again then she would be off. Many times children just need their thoughts to be validated. 

Use open ended questions, which are questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no."  Examples: Tell me more about that... How does/did that make you feel? Explain... Help me understand... What made you ask/say that? What can I do to help you? What do you think may help? How can I help? (understanding you may just have to be present grief is not something we can take away it's a process that everyone goes through individually)  Avoid using the Why question it can cause a defensive response.

What If I Say The Wrong Thing?

Advice from professional school counselor: Julie Rishel

Parents often worry about saying the "wrong" thing to their child at a time like this. Parents may not realize that children simply want to feel your concern and support more than hear specific "right" words. When your child is talking, try not to feel the urgency of finding something to say in response. Simply listen in a way they can feel your undivided attention. When your child is talking, try not to project your feelings onto him/her. Allow your child to express his/her own feelings. For example, instead of saying, "I'm sure you are sad, we all are." Try asking questions like, "Can you tell me what this has been like for you ?" Or "What things have you been thinking (or feeling) about since your friend has died?"

When your child is done talking, take a minute to reflect back to your child what you heard him/her say. For example, you may say, "I heard you say you are feeling sad because she has been your friend since kindergarten." This allows your child to feel heard and understood.

Using Clear Terms

Advice from professional school counselor: Julie Rishel

I know that the word "died" can feel harsh to say and read. It is hard for me to type. But it is ok for children to know and use this term, as it can be less confusing than the terms of "passing" and "living in Heaven." Typically a child understand the permanency of death by the age of 8 or so, but we still want to avoid confusing children that someone "passing" or "living" someplace else means that someday they will return to earth.

What If My Child Doesn't Like to Talk?

Advice from professional school counselor: Julie Rishel

If your child doesn't feel comfortable talking about his/her feelings, encourage expression through other means. Writing a poem, drawing a picture, writing/singing a song. Not every child will want to talk to an adult right away, and that is ok.

Giving the Brain a Rest from Sadness

Advice from professional school-based drug and alcohol counselor: Katherine Stewart

While it is normal for a child to have a variety of feelings during this experience, we don't want our children to dwell in a place of sadness for extended periods of time. We want them to know that it is ok to still have fun, to still smile and laugh. Sometimes it is helpful to create a list with your child of activities he/she enjoys doing. Your child can go to that list for inspiration when finding it hard to be happy/have fun.

Encourage children not to be stuck in the sadness of their friend's memory. Encourage them to think and remember happy moments so that you're helping their brain come out of the cycle of being sad all of the time.  Give your own brain a break from the sadness too.

Children Grieve Differently

Advice from professional school counselor: Julie Rishel

Children may grieve differently than you expected. They may be more curious and less emotional than you expected. All individuals handle grief differently and that is ok. Reassure them (and yourself) that grief takes many different forms and each person's process is uniquely theirs.

Stick to a Routine

Advice from professional school-based drug and alcohol counselor: Katherine Stewart

Kids don't generally like major change in their lives. The things that are going to change is that their friend won't be there. But if other major things in their life stay the same or relatively the same, that will help them cope with this change.  

If you were praying for the friend before her passing, continue to pray for the family rather than just take it away.  

Taking Care of Yourself as a Grieving Caregiver

Advice from professional school-based drug and alcohol counselor: Katherine Stewart

Be aware of your own grieving process so that you can take care of yourself and then able to take care of those who depend on you. Maintain a routine as part of this and don't try sudden changes.

Having Confidence in Your Ability

Advice from professional school-based drug and alcohol counselor: Katherine Stewart

Parents usually know how to comfort their children.  You're going to be okay.  One of the most important things to remember is that you can't take the pain away.  We can't save them from sadness, because unfortunately its part of life.  You aren't a failure as a parent just because you can't take away the sadness of your child.  You can be present.

Anger in Grief & a Faith-based Response

Advice from professional private counselor Dana Haluska Melton

It is very important to not transfer your own feelings and thoughts onto your children but also be truthful if they question. For example, "Mommy are you mad at God because he did not save Bubba?" I may respond " Yes, I am angry but I love God very much and I know he loves me. Sometimes we get angry at those we love but it doesn't mean we stop loving one another." or " Yes I am angry but not at God I am angry that this had to happen. While I don't understand the reason I trust God and know he loves us."

Addressing Fear:

Advice from professional private counselor Dana Haluska Melton

Fear can become a big part of a child's emotions especially when they question their own mortality. This is probably the most difficult to address because there is no easy answer. So addressing the fear with God at the center is critical. Example, your child asks, "What if I get sick and die?" Here, And it is our responsibility to be as concrete as possible. Parent may say "What makes you ask that?" and the child may say, "Well, Bubba died of cancer...does that mean I will too?" A parent with a faith-based life can respond  "God is the only one that knows when we will die. We have to trust in God and believe that he always does what is best for us even if we don't understand."

Fear can come in many forms. A child may fear leaving their parent, going to school, that something bad is going to happen without any real evidence, may become fearful of things they were never fearful of before. It's important as an adult helping the child to stay concrete and create safety. Reminding the child through routine and reassurance that they are taken care of.

When to Seek Professional Counseling Services

Advice from professional private counselor Dana Haluska Melton

Not every child needs to process this further than what you will do at home or what happens in school, but if you sense that there is something off with your child or if the pain is lingering longer than you would expect then that is the time to seek professional counseling.

Behaviors that may warrant professional help are anything that lasts consistently more than a few weeks. This can include sleep disturbance, change in eating habits, change in academics, acting out behaviors such as aggression, development of tics, withdrawn, displaced anger, uncontrollable crying, sensitivity to everyday routines and any marked behavioral change that is new or different prior to the tragic event occurring.

ALWAYS take any suicidal thought spoken or unspoken seriously!

Thank you for reading. I pray that these resources can be a blessing to you in your sadness and grief. Feel free to share these widely. If there is something you'd like further information or resources about, use the comment bar to request more or leave kind notes. Log in through Facebook, Google Plus, or Smug Mug to leave comments.

Peace and grace to you.


  • photographicmemoriespa

    on April 17, 2017

    I tell my kids that the hard times in my life are what helped me to grow the most, & it is what you do with those times that shapes who you will become. I also explain to them that is okay to feel what they need to feel, but then takes those feelings and do what they can to create something good from it. - Kelly

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