4 Ways to Help a Grieving Child
The dreaded phone call—
The unexpected news you receive of an accident, a diagnosis, a death.
I got one of those a few months ago.
I woke up one Monday morning in October to the shocking news that my 5 year old niece had died.
Galya had been born with Niemann Pick Type C, a rare genetic disease. From birth, she had overcome one medical emergency after another. We had all expected her to bounce back from this latest complication like she had all the others.
We were wrong.
Over ten years ago, I had to make a similar phone call home.
I, too, had to relay the horrific news that my child had passed away. Kaden, my newborn son of 2 months, had died suddenly of unknown causes.
We are a family well-versed in loss.
* * *
Tragic loss is devastating for anyone. But for those of us of Chinese heritage, there are cultural norms and expectations that make it difficult to grieve in a healthy way.
Perhaps death was something to be feared, avoided, or ignored instead of faced head on.
Perhaps sadness was seen as a sign of weakness.
Perhaps we were taught to eat bitterness and resign ourselves to hardship.
Although there are many Chinese ceremonies and customs that define the mourning process, there seems to be little room for the unpredictable and emotional nature of grief.
Regardless of cultural background however, as untigering parents, we don’t want to pass on harmful perspectives or practices that keep our kids from processing their grief in a healthy way.
Here are 4 ways we can help our children navigate the loss of a loved one.
Don’t hide your own pain
Oftentimes, out of a desire to protect our children, we keep a stiff upper lip and put up a brave front.
But I don’t think that’s what our kids actually need from us.
Showing our own pain demonstrates to our kids that it’s perfectly natural to be sad, upset, and even angry. It teaches them that strong emotions are an appropriate response to tragedy. We don’t have to hide our tears and anguish, afraid that they are signs of weakness or something to be ashamed about.
Our tears can be a sign of strength.
They show that we are not afraid to face our pain and the terrible reality of loss.
When I found out about my niece, my boys were actually the first ones I told. They saw me crying. They heard me talk about it. They listened in on my conversation with my sister at the hospital. They saw that I was fine one minute and in tears the next.
Of course, we don’t want to burden our children with our emotions, but we do want to model the freedom to grieve, as well as healthy ways to do so.
Let them grieve in their own way
There is no formula for grief. Not everyone is comfortable bawling their eyes out in public, or needs to spend days curled up in bed with a box of tissues. Some want to stay active, or be by themselves, or distract themselves for a while with a movie.
Our kids are the same. Depending on age, personality, cognitive understanding, and nature of the relationship, they might respond very differently than the way we expect.
Young children may regress and start wetting their bed again. A normally carefree child may suddenly become clingy. Teenagers may withdraw and rebel.
I still recall a time when I was 12 years old. My family had moved from Canada to the States, and I was depressed and angry, blaming my parents for uprooting me. I took it out on my mom with angsty tirades (because I’d never dare to talk back to my dad), but instead of getting on my case for disrespecting her, my mom held space for me. She let me yell at her. She bore my anger because she knew I was in pain.
I’m so grateful that she saw past my behavior to my grief.
Our children may not always be able to articulate their pain. Their grief may manifest in bewildering behavior, or may not show up at all.
What they need from us is not frustration and judgment, but extra grace and understanding.
Don’t make it taboo to talk about death
Many Chinese are very superstitious about death. It’s considered bad form to use the number 4 (since it sounds like the word for death), stick your pair of chopsticks straight up in your rice bowl (it looks like incense sticks used in mourning), or wear white to a happy occasion (because that is the color worn at funerals).
In our efforts to avoid difficult conversations, morbid reflections on our own mortality, or superstitious bad luck, we often try to steer our kids’ attention away from death.
But all this only heightens the fear associated with death, dying, and the unknown.
Instead, whether your child is grieving a personal loss or not, make it safe for them to talk openly with you about death.
Heather Shumaker, author of It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids, gives great practical tips for talking to children about death.
Here are a few:
Keep it simple. Answer only the question the child is asking at the moment.
Talk about death before your child loses a loved one.
Give kids concrete explanations about what dead and living things do. Tell them dead animals (and people) can’t move, think, breathe, eat or go to the bathroom.
Use the words “dead” and “die.” Euphemisms confuse children.
Read picture books about death together. Some are secular, some are spiritual. Read the book ahead of time to make sure it’s right for your family.
Stay as calm and matter-of-fact as possible.
Having open dialogue with our children about death can address uncertainties, ease fears, and set the groundwork for future conversations about other tough topics.
Provide outlets to grieve and celebrate
Having special times, places, and mementos to help process emotions is helpful for kids and parents alike. It provides an intentional space and opportunity to remember, grieve, and celebrate together as a family.
We have pictures of Kaden prominently displayed around the house and speak openly of him. On the anniversary of his death, we look at his baby scrapbook together, or watch a slideshow of his brief life. Every summer when we return to the States, we have a picnic lunch together at the memorial park where he is buried.
Even though NoNo and KK have never met Kaden, they’ve still expressed sadness over not having him in their lives. Theirs is not a grief of losing what they once had, but of never having had it in the first place.
Having these family rituals and special keepsakes are really valuable in helping them develop a connection to their brother.
* * *
Last week, I received another dreaded phone call.
I listened numbly as my brother told me that my dad has stage IV lung cancer. It has already spread to both lungs, bronchial tubes, and trachea.
I’m hopeful that my father will recover completely.
But whether we have ten more months with my dad or ten more years, I hope that my children can learn to face the reality of life, dying, and death—
feeling deeply, grieving freely, talking openly, and remembering with intention.
I’ll be right there, learning with them.