The rebuilding of life
As bereaved parents struggle through their grief, come to terms with their loss, accept, and adjust to what has happened, they discover new hope, purpose, and direction for their lives. They discover how important it is to share their love and concern with others who are struggling with the reality of loss and painful memories. As they move through their grief and make peace with what has happened to them, they discover that there is meaning and purpose beyond loss. After a long and painful struggle, they discover that there is a future, and they move into that future knowing that, just as there was love, support, help, and healing for the tragic losses in the past, so it shall be in the future.
Helping other children in the family
If the deceased child has brothers and sisters, it will be important for you to help them understand what has happened and to offer them your support. The death of a child can create fear and confusion for the siblings of the deceased child. They may develop a fear of getting sick and dying. They may feel neglected and unloved due to the fact that the parents are so focused on the deceased child. They may be afraid to ask questions because they feel that it will only create more grief for their parents. They may feel responsible for their sibling’s death because most every child wishes at times that his/her siblings were not around, and they need to be assured by their parents that this did not cause the death of their brother or sister. They also need to express their feelings. This is a difficult time for young siblings who do not have the capacity to understand their parents’ mourning and withdrawal. Parents should speak honestly to their children in a language they can understand.
In the case of the death of a baby, explain to your other children what has happened and the cause of the baby’s death. Answer their questions as honestly as you possibly can. Because guilt and the need to blame oneself is commonly present in grief, assure your children that they had nothing to do with the cause of the baby’s death. This assurance is important because guilt and the need to blame oneself is commonly present in children, especially in the case of younger children who harbored jealously and anger toward the baby because the baby was claiming the parents’ attention. Talking with the other children in the family will enable them to accept the baby’s death and resolve their grief.
Discuss the reality that grief hurts everyone involved. Remember also that your children also had expectations and dreams about the deceased brother or sister, and they also need to work through their grief. Give them permission to grieve by letting them see you grieve.
Try to understand the grief that the other children in the family are experiencing. Children tend to express and act out their grief, feelings and emotions in certain behavior. By being aware of their behavior, you may get insight into what they are feeling and thinking. This requires that you really listen to what is going on inside the child. Listen not just to what they say, but listen and hear what is behind their words and actions. Parental listening is crucial in helping children deal with grief.
Since each person is a unique individual, each child will react and process grief differently. Typical reactions to loss in children include: physical distress, anger, aggressiveness, fear, panic anxiety, guilt, and regression. Exercise patience and try to understand what is happening “in their world.”
Remember that children, like adults, experience mental confusion due to the stress of grief. This means that they have trouble organizing their thoughts, remembering, planning, and concentrating. This may show up in their schoolwork and examinations. You may want to share this with their teachers and school counselors.
Assure your children that their reactions to the loss of their sibling is normal and that it is OK to cry and express these normal emotions that persons feel when they go through grief. It will be helpful at this point for you as a parent to openly and honestly share your feelings with your children. This will reassure them that they are having normal grief reactions in the face of a devastating loss. This will also open up the opportunity for them to ask questions about things that may be disturbing and confusing for them. Moreover, it will make them aware that they are surrounded by love and acceptance. Since grief creates insecurity, uncertainty, and anxiety in children, by creating a secure and loving environment where they feel loved, safe, and secure, children will be able to process their grief in a healthy and positive way.
Help your children find healthy ways of expressing such emotions as anger and fear. If they have repressed these strong emotions, it may take a long time for them to surface, and parents can play a vital role in helping children verbalize and express these feelings and what is going on deep within.
Because children’s identity within the family is defined, in part, by other members of the family, when a family member dies it profoundly affects the self-identity of the surviving siblings. Parents play a vital role in helping children re-establish their self-identity so that they have a healthy sense of who they are and love themselves.
It is important to keep in mind the various ways in which children view death. For example, because children who are in preschool and kindergarten see cartoon characters dying, then coming back to life the next day in another episode of the same cartoon series, they may tend to view death as only temporary. By age 6 they are beginning to see death as final and permanent. By age 11 they are able to view death from the perspective of adults.
When the time is right, talk with your children about the reality of death and the fact that death is a natural and predictable part of the life cycle. Discuss how we see death throughout the natural world in such things as the death of animal life, pets, birds, fish, vegetation, trees, and human beings. By having such honest talks, you will help children grasp the reality of living and dying. They will come to understand and appreciate the sage old saying that for all things there is “a time to be born and a time to die.” There are a number of excellent books and resource materials that will be invaluable to you as you discuss this subject with your children. This type of discussion is one that you can pick up and continue from time to time with your children when issues and questions arise regarding death and grief.
Using terms other than “death” and “dying” can often be confusing for young children. For example, when a young child is told that their deceased brother/sister is “sleeping,” the child may assume that, after so long, the deceased sibling will wake up and return home. In some cases, the child is afraid to go to sleep because they associate “sleeping” with “dying.” Some children who are told that their deceased sibling has “gone away” have an urge to look for them and try to find them, all the while longing for them to return from that mysterious place where they “went.” When the child receives reassurance, it creates a sense of security and helps determine how the child will process future losses.
It is also important for a young child to have an ongoing sense of order, rhythm, and routine in his/her daily life. This greatly affects the child’s feeling of security and well-being and compensates for the insecurity the death of a sibling creates. This also helps the child pick up the broken pieces, accept their loss, adjust to what has happened, and move on with his/her life.
The grief of grandparents
Grandparents experience a unique type of grief when a grandchild dies because they are not only mourning the loss of a grandchild, but they are also watching their son or daughter go through the pain and suffering of grief, and they are trying to offer their love, comfort, strength, and support. Grandparents may feel woefully inadequate in their capacity to do anything during this difficult time. There are no words to describe what a grandparent experiences when they lose a grandchild. This is a time for deep and open family sharing in which all concerned reach out to each other with love.