Guiding Children Through the Pain of Loss

Mother holding sad teenager girl from behind trying to provide comfort and support in a dire situation

Last week a beloved neighbor on our street passed away. He lived with his daughter, son-in-law and their five children. The two children who often stay at my house became very good friends with the family, playing games in the backyard, sledding together in the snow, jumping on the trampoline and sitting at the picnic table drawing pictures. They were well aware of the passing for their friends’ grandfather. My sense was that they were not exactly clear how to respond or how it was making them feel.

For many children knowing what to say or do when someone dies can be stressful and even frightening. They can have many questions about death. They can feel sadness for their friends who are struggling with deep grief or they might feel awkward over what to say or do. Do we act like nothing happened? Do we ask a bunch of questions? What do we do if someone cries? Is there anything we can do to help them feel better?

With these children who live in my home several days a week I suggested we all choose a sympathy card and write our own messages of condolence. We made a batch of brownies and took these to the family. The mom became very emotional, sharing some details about how her dad died and began to cry. I was aware of how important it was to embrace her tears with acceptance and appreciation and not with fear, but also saying with regret that I wished I could have given her a hug. We all nodded as we shared that desire for human contact amidst our social distancing pandemic.

It was a sweet moment of emotional and relational connection. Children need to see how the adults around them demonstrate being fully present and fully comfortable with people expressing their pain. As we walked back to our house, the children were clearly touched by the experience and proud of themselves for being comfortable and having a part in the healing process. I’d like to think that they will remember this the next time they are faced with a loss, feeling confident and comfortable with embracing other’s pain and having some tangible ways to respond.

Closeup of crying black woman hugging and supporting her upset friend

In today’s pandemic world we are all experiencing losses above and beyond what is considered normal. At the same time, losses are losses regardless of the cause or the number of them.

To challenge us, how do we, as the adults who teach and model appropriate, caring and compassionate responses to life’s challenges, guide children through the pain of loss? What do we want our children to understand? How can we empower them with responses that bring comfort to those in pain and give our children meaningful, loving and compassionate ways to reach out and embrace the sadness others are experiencing?

Becoming comfortable with our responses to those who are mourning, being sensitive, attentive and attuned to the needs we see in others can be our guide. We then can serve as guides to our children. What an important gift when we have the opportunity to touch the lives of those on both the receiving and giving ends of situations involving loss.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What did you experience as a child when your family responded to losses in the family, or losses of friends or neighbors? What was modeled for you? To what extent were you given messages that let you feel comfortable with directly caring for other’s pain?
  2. What are some specific ways you would like to model and discuss how to respond when you and your family need to respond to someone dying? How difficult will it be for you to be open, compassionate, and accepting of tears and other emotional expressions of pain?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute (LGI)