How Do We Help Our Children Cope with Loss?

By Rebecca Nagaishi

It feels like tragic events are jumping off the pages of our newspapers these past few weeks. Headlines of young drivers and passengers killed in fatal car accidents, the shocking shooting death of a promising young soccer player, the Ebola crisis far away, and neighborhoods in turmoil close by – all of this can be upsetting news for adults but even more so for kids.

Most of our children experience stressful events as they are growing up – loss is common and a part of life. All kids are faced with painful situations like the death of a pet, a divorce, a best friend moving away, or even a change in schools. But some losses are more traumatic because they are sudden, unexpected, or violent. Losses that occur under these traumatic circumstances often create more complicated grief reactions. How do we, as parents, help our kids cope with these losses within their own families and community?

Most of us can look around at our family and friends and see that everyone deals with grief differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no “normal” time frame to experience grief. A child’s reaction to a loss is influenced by their age, developmental level, previous experiences, emotional well being, and family support.

Many times a child’s grief won’t immediately seem like grief, because children express grief in a different way than adults. Children are likely to experience a roller coaster of emotional “highs” and “lows”. They tend to move in and out of intense feelings, rather than staying in one emotion for a long period of time. A grieving child may be very upset or quick to anger and later play as if nothing has happened – often in the same day. Some children may develop out of character behaviors at school or home, such as arguing, fighting, and irritability. They may change eating and sleeping patterns. Others may withdraw from friends, family, or activities they used to enjoy. These too may be manifestations of a child’s grief.

So what can we do to help our kids?

~ Be honest about what has happened. Provide an opportunity for children to discuss what they have seen or read.

~ Take care of yourself to ensure that you are handling your own grief – only then are you able to help your child with their pain.

~ Spend time with them. Show love and support. Maintain their normal routine to increase feelings of safety and security.

~ Talk to your child – give your child the words s/he may be lacking.

“I think you are sad because…..” or “I think this anger you are feeling could really be sadness because you miss your ….” Giving them the words to understand what they are feeling is one of the most important and powerful ways to help them through grief.

~ Give your child a creative outlet to express feelings. This could be drawing, writing, doing crafts, listening to music, or playing sports.

Most children progress through grief over time. However some children may need more help processing a loss. Sometimes, grief can become complicated, and if your child doesn’t feel better over time or you feel like their grief is getting worse, it might be important to enlist more formal help. Meeting with a counselor who specializes in grief and trauma recovery can help your child and family as you move through the grief process.

Rebecca Nagaishi is a LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and Director of the Family Solutions Division of Family Services, Inc. Family Services has a team of experienced therapists available to address the needs of children and families, three of whom have had intensive training in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). Call them at 336-722-8173.  They are located at 1200 South Broad Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27101. For more information visitwww.fsifamily.org.


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