Let's face it. We're not always awesome at helping friends who are grieving, but when it comes to supporting children who've lost a close loved one, we often clench up and fumble even more. They're little, and can seem so fragile, and it's hard to know just how much they comprehend (spoiler: It's a lot more than we realise). And so parents are finding that many adults avoid offering kids an "I'm sorry" or acknowledging their painful loss in any way. In The Washington Post, Jennifer Bannan wrote about what happened when her six-year-old son Cypress lost his father to cancer.
The kinds of things people said to Cypress, after they hugged me long and hard, expressed their anger and sadness, held me and searched my tearful eyes, went along these lines: "Hey, buddy, how's kindergarten going? Are you learning to read? Into any sports?"
And, feeling as relieved as they probably did to have gotten through the reflection of grief, I would look upon this beautiful boy, this vital version of Brian, and revel in him, and never once think to say, "He's so sad his dad is gone."
Instead, I might say something like, "You should have seen how quickly he put together that Lego set!" or "He's really getting good at the guitar."
This type of deflection is common, my friend Michelle Enriquez tells me. As part of the organisation Comfort Zone Camp, she's developed programming and trained community volunteers to help grieving children cope with significant losses. People often have misguided intentions when they see a grieving child. "Our initial response is, 'How do I make them feel better?'" Michelle says. "But sometimes there's nothing we can say to make them feel better — and that's not even our job." What we can do, she says, is be there to listen and help them work through their feelings. Here's how to show up for kids who grieving.
Get Down to Their Level and Look Them in the Eye
It's an active listening technique and can help children feel like they really matter.
Know What Not to Say
Michelle says that two of the most common phrases people tell grieving children (and even grieving adults) are, "Well, at least they're in a better place," and "I know what you're going through." Both can be problematic. "A better place" is rooted in personal beliefs, and the child may have no idea what or where this place is. Before Heather McManamy passed away from metastatic cancer, she wrote a goodbye note on Facebook where she proclaimed how her death should be discussed with her young daughter Brianna:
Whatever religion brings you comfort, I am happy that you have that. However, respect that we are not religious. Please, please, please do not tell Brianna that I am in heaven.
In her mind, that means that I chose to be somewhere else and left her. In reality, I did everything I could to be here with her, as there is nowhere, NOWHERE, I would rather be than with her and Jeff. Please don't confuse her and let her think for one second that is not true.
Because, I am not in heaven. I'm here. But no longer in the crappy body that turned against me. My energy, my love, my laughter, those incredible memories, it's all here with you.
"I know what you're going through" is a tricky one. Every loss is so unique to the person grieving it. Michelle tells me that when her husband Michael lost his mum at the age of 13, he had to go to school the next day. There, a counsellor told him, "I know exactly what you're going through." Michael, feeling like heart was finally lifted, said, "Your mum died, too?" The counsellor replied, "Well... no." Michael was so angry and hurt that he ran out of the room.
Michelle says that if you did experience a loss that is very similar to the child's, it can be helpful to share that, but comparing a different loss — say the death of your grandmother or pet — probably will not be of comfort.
Say, 'I'm Sorry for Your Loss,' and Then Get Ready to Listen
In her Washington Post piece, Bannan writes that the next time she sees a child who has lost in the worst way, she will "say the difficult words: 'I am so, so sorry. This is terrible what has happened to you. You have lost someone very special.'" They need to hear that, just as adults do.
You can add that if they ever want to talk about things, you're here for them, and then leave it open ended. Michelle says adults can help kids work through their emotions by asking them questions. For example, if the child asks, "Do you think my dad is in Heaven?" you can answer with, "Well, do you think your dad is in Heaven?" and then maybe the child will say, "Yes, I do." Kids aren't looking for answers — they're looking for an outlet.
It's OK to Say Words Such As 'Dead', 'Death' and 'Die'
Very young kids can have a "magical way of thinking," Michelle explains. When people use phrases such as "he's gone away" or "we've lost him," that can make them think, well then, let's go find him. Using firm language is an important part of helping them through the acceptance stage.
Let Them Feel and Cry
It's easy to respond to tears with words such as, "Don't be sad," "It's OK," or "Be brave." But it's OK to not be OK. Tell kids that however they're feeling is exactly how they should be feeling. It's OK for them to cry, and for you to cry with them.