Years ago, our family took a trip. Four of us left for Toronto; three of us returned. My son Nicholas’ (who was 2 at the time) favourite stuffy, TBear, unexpectedly found a new home after he was accidentally left behind in the twisted bedding of our hotel room.
So began Nicholas’ relationship with loss. He was devastated. Flowing tears accompanied desperate pleas to reroute our aircraft and return to the Radisson to rescue his sure-to-be-terrified best little buddy. But after the initial heartbreak and some tearful conversations, Nicholas slowly came to understand things differently. Over time, he created and embraced a story to help cope with the loss.
Tbear had a new home and was being a good friend to someone else who really needed him. Nicholas regularly shared stories with us about TBear’s adventures with his many new friends. Although TBear was no longer physically present, the stuffy continued to be a part of Nick’s life through his imagination for years.
We can learn from this – loss is an important part of life, and helping our children face it is an important aspect of parenting.
1. Talk about it.
Conversations about death, loss, and grief are right up there with those awkward rites of passage for all parents like the “sex talk.” But how many of us have the “grief and loss” talk with our kids? Aren’t these issues just as inevitable as sex?
Don’t leave these conversations up to the children. Model and initiate by sharing appropriately about your own losses, both big and small. Share how they make you feel and how you want to approach the loss and grief. Keep these conversations brief but descriptive. Demonstrate that grief is normal. As we share our experiences, it teaches our children how to connect. A big part of working through loss is building connections and reconnections.
2. Explore opportunities for identification and expression of emotions.
Loss creates a roller coaster of emotions: sadness, anger, guilt, fear, joy, etc. How we deal with emotions is primarily influenced by these early years within the home. Once again, it is up to us as parents and caregivers to model a range of emotions. Normalize these, yet teach that feelings don’t need to always drive behaviour.
Children are in the process of becoming emotionally literate. Rather than using words to explore feelings, use creative mediums such as art, activities, play, music, and stories. For example, read stories aloud and wonder together what the characters may be feeling.
Note: A child’s expression of grief may range from appearing indifferent to laughter (which could be apprehension or related to nervousness), anger, sadness, joy, happiness and/or play – all within a short time period. This is normal. Realizing this and helping others to also normalize it can help balance support for the child.
3. Anticipate and normalize the losses they will encounter.
Children will experience many different kinds of losses in their young lives: schools or neighborhoods may change, friends may come and go, disappointments will occur with school or on their sports teams, etc. Exploring these smaller losses may be helpful in developing their “grief muscles,” setting them up well for resilience in the face of more significant losses such as the death of a loved one or the break-up of a significant relationship.
4. Be prepared to learn from children about grief.
Children learn about grief from us as parents and caregivers. Our actions speak louder than our words. At the same time, we can gain significant learnings from our children. Children are not limited by the filters, pressures, and assumptions that often accompany adult grief, such as patterns of avoidance, minimization, or outright denial. Children have the freedom and permission to embrace grief in its most raw, unmasked form. Often, this means that they are better able to embrace grief and continue to move forward.
As loss also forces us into a relationship with something that may no longer be physically present, imagination and creativity can help us continue to embrace the relationship that once was. Imagination, creativity, and remembering go together in continuing this influence into the future.
We can’t shield our children from loss (although many of us do our best to try). In fact, I believe we do a disservice to them when we try. Love and loss go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the potential of the other. Helping children to deal with and prepare for the inevitability of loss is an important gift we can give.
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