Monday, July 17, 2023

In Grief: Sharing Sadness with A Child

It [is]our job to walk them through understanding their pain but also to be honest with them about our own.  ~ K.C. Freeman Ray

A reader writes: I recently lost my dad really suddenly, and he was only 50 and very healthy. I just wanted to talk about this because it seems there's nobody to tell. Nursing my younger brother today because he's not well. I got just an overwhelming sadness and couldn't stop crying and its weird how it doesn't even cross his mind why I might be upset because he's young? I dunno I don't get it surely even if he's a child he misses my dad too? Anyway I had to pretend I was crying because I felt ill and he was like "I never cry when I'm ill" haha. I just feel so incompetent the one day I have to look after him and I feel so down I can't stop crying. It's good I have him to make me smile but I can't even call anyone else to say come round and make him feel better. What age will I be able to talk to him about this? He's just turned 9 now.

I find it on the tip of my tongue ALL the time I want to share it but I feel restrained like I can't say anything. I know it's wrong because I think he is old enough to also be grieving now but because of how my family in general are handling this loss it's scary to say anything in case it upsets him. I think he must be upset inside but then the fact that it never crosses his mind I feel like oh maybe he's trying not to think about it so bringing it up would upset him and because he doesn't like to talk I don't want him to be bottling things up inside.

My response: My dear, there is nothing wrong with saying to your brother, "I'm crying because I'm really missing Dad and that makes me feel very sad." Letting children see our own grief reactions, along with a reassuring explanation for them (so they know our tears have nothing to do with something they did or failed to do), models and normalizes grief and gives them permission to feel and express their own sad feelings. You could even go on to say something like this: "Do you ever feel like that?"

You ask how old he must be before you can talk to him about this. Children old enough to love are old enough to grieve, although how they experience and process their grief will vary with their age, level of development and other factors. If you want to learn more about how to talk with a child about the death of a loved one, I encourage you to do some reading on the topic. You'll find links to dozens of helpful and informative articles, books, websites and other resources listed here: Children, Teens and Grief. See especially Supporting Children and Adolescents in Grief.

When a child sees an adult crying (or acting very sad) they usually wonder what is wrong ~ and sometimes (because kids are prone to magical thinking and can be very egocentric) they conclude that you're upset by something they did or failed to do. That's why I suggest offering a very simple (and truthful!) explanation: "I'm missing Dad and feeling very sad about that right now." And by adding the question, "Do you ever feel like that, too?" you're simply opening a door that he is free to walk through, or not. You cannot force anyone to open up to you, but you certainly can convey that you are willing to listen if that person ever feels a need to talk.

Afterword: Marty, your advice is exactly what I want to do. Yes you are very right, especially "can convey that you are willing to listen if that person ever feels a need to talk." I will definitely do this next time when it comes. I am looking forward to being able to share it and to hear what he says. Thank you.

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Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH  

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