How to talk to your kids about: Grief

Most parents try to protect their children from experiencing grief. If you want to try and protect your child from it, here are some parenting choices you should never make –

Buy a pet.
Let them meet their grandparents.
Neglect a potted plant.
Move house.
Let them make friends.
Allow them to get too attached to a caterpillar.
Sell their potty.
Lose their favourite soft toy.

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Unfortunately, you’ve probably already done most of the things on this list – which is great! The things on this list are the things that make life worth living (especially bonding with a caterpillar). But they are also the things that make life painful at times. That’s what grief is.

Your kids are going to experience it, so don’t try to protect them from it – teach them how to navigate it well instead.

How do you explain grief to your kids?

One option is to put all of your sad memories on pieces of paper and put them in a ‘grief case’. Then when your kids are old enough, take them on a strange camping trip where you cry too much while reading them your painful memories.

A better option is to tell them this – all loss is change, and all change is loss. One beautiful description of grief we’ve come across is, “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. Grief is just love with no place to go.” (Jamie Anderson)

As we grow up and become adults, our pain threshold gets higher, and most of us find it hard to validate the fact that our child is distraught because Moana has finished and now they have to have a bath.

At its lowest level, grief is disappointment. At its medium level, grief is loss or change, and at its higher levels, grief is despair that something has happened and now things will never be the same. To help kids navigate the big versions of grief, we have to help them navigate the smaller versions of grief. So be available to chat about how they are doing when they experience any loss.

Here is what I mean –

Goldfish.
Rabbit.
Cat.
Dog.
Grandma.

Value is subjective

The more we value something, the more we grieve when it is gone. Our kids place different value on different things to us. Sometimes with our adult point of view, we can devalue the grief that our children experience when they have lost something, or when something has changed.

However, taking the time to sit and ask questions and listen to your child, actually helps them put language and expression to their experience. Once you can see the world through their eyes and have heard their perspective on the thing they value, only then can you offer another perspective. If they valued something, then they will experience grief – even if you didn’t value it.

Do you take the time to empathise with your child about their losses and disappointment?

Getting stuck in grief

Most people feel sad for a while and then they move on. At first every day is sad, then some days are sad, and then after a while, you are having more not-sad days than sad days.

But some people do get stuck in grief. This usually happens when someone places more value on what they had than on what they still have. This is when we need someone to get into our world and offer a different perspective. A common mistake that people make is by rushing in and telling someone to move on.

A better thing to do would be to get your kid to write a couple of lists or draw some pictures about what was good then and what is good now. You can help to point out some of the good things about now as well as acknowledging some of the good things that no longer exist.

Mark the time

They say that time heals all wounds. Now that’s not true for everything, but it’s often true for our feelings. Time really is a great healer, and so one of the most helpful things that you can do to help to teach your children to grieve well is mark significant anniversaries as a family.

Have a special dinner a month after the family pet has died and ask everyone how they have been feeling about it. Have a funeral for a goldfish. Gather extended friends and family around a year after a significant loss and celebrate the good and mourn the loss.

Don’t forget about the later

The way that you engage with grief now will teach your kid how to engage with grief later in life. It’s easy right now, to distract them, or to offer quick fixes or to buy a new one. But do we really want our kids to seek distraction, or quick fixes or get a new one when they are adults? Healthy functioning adults know how to grieve well and this starts with teaching your kids that it’s okay to grieve too.

Our country has a long history of grieving well, not only during the process of a tangi but also in the midst of the celebration of Matariki. Maybe an easy thing to do as a family is to learn about Matariki and incorporate some of its mid-winter traditions into your family traditions.

Making space for grief is an important part of making space for the whole range of emotions we experience as humans. So instead of trying to avoid grief, teach your kids how to grieve well.


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About Author

James Beck

James Beck is our Kaihanga o Ngā Mea/Content Director. He’s been part of our team for 10 years now. James started his time here as an Attitude presenter and has reached over 200,000 people in schools, prisons and workplaces all over the country. You may have caught him on radio, TV or even read one of his many articles. James has also recently authored a (very funny) children’s book, Eliza Loves Rocks. Anyone who’s heard James speak will remember him for his unique sense of humour, which he credits his rural upbringing for. It has been a key to helping him connect with people from all walks of life. James is passionate about helping people reach their full potential.

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