What NOT to Say when Children are Grieving

Loss is a reality of life. We often think of loss when someone important to us dies. But losses can come in many forms: virtually every time something changes, something is lost.

Grieving is a normal, natural process toward healing

Most parents experience loss each time their child changes and moves to the next stage of life. For example, how many parents feel sad as well as proud when their child takes those tentative first steps or heads off to kindergarten, overnight camp, college. “Where did my cuddly baby go?” a parent says through her tears. “I love that he’s getting so grown up,” a father muses, experiencing a surprising wave of sadness as his child steps onto the bus. “I feel so proud,” a parent asserts while swallowing a lump in his or her throat as a child drives off for new adventure.

As parents have many moments of sadness and loss, children do as well.

Children’s lives are filled with changes that can produce varying levels of grief. Some examples are having to say goodbye to the crib when it’s time to move to the big bed, losing a favorite stuffed animal, being both anxious and sad when a parent goes off to work, realizing she will be in the same class with her friends, hating that he’s getting too tall to fit in his favorite play car, realizing she has to figure out her own finances now.

It is important for parents to consider the messages they send to their children when their children are experiencing what to them can be profound sadness around loss and change, even if for adults they may seem like small and insignificant events. These messages can either promote a sense of emotional safety with and connection to parents or they can be more distancing by diminishing the realities of the child’s sadness.

In the iconic book Connections: The Threads That Strengthen Families, author Jean Illsley Clarke shares a list of the common but toxic messages people can transmit. These toxic messages can be discounting to the receiver when children and adults are experiencing loss. These messages might also be surprisingly familiar to you because they are so common—and maybe because these are messages you heard growing up when you were sad.

Basically these messages tell a child not to grieve, not to recognize feelings, or to shut down, and therefore they can hamper a child’s ability to be connected with his or her own feelings and with others.

Toxic “Don’t Grieve” Messages

  • You’ll get over it.
  • Don’t get so upset, it’s not that big a deal.
  • You have nothing to be sad about.
  • These things happen.
  • Don’t question it.
  • Just stop thinking about it.
  • Stop acting like a baby!
  • Serves you right!
  • You’ve been sad long enough, it’s time to put on a happy face.
  • Stop moping.
  • Nobody lives forever.
  • Pets just die-that’s life.
  • Things change, that’s just the way it is.
  • Don’t cry.
  • You have to learn to accept changes.
  • You’re okay, put a smile on your face.
  • Boys don’t cry.
  • That’s not that important.
  • Don’t tell me about it.
  • Be brave, only cowards cry.
  • My loss is much worse than yours.
  • You being sad is making me sad.
  • No one wants to be around a sadsack.

   Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about the time in your childhood when you lost something or someone important to you. How did the adults around you respond? Did you feel supported and appreciated or were your feelings minimized or even mocked?
  2. How familiar were some of the toxic messages in the list above? Can you appreciate that these messages might have been more hurtful than helpful to you?
  3. How open are you to the fact that your children can be deeply impacted when they perceive a loss, that they can have deep feelings just as an adult can have?

Coming in the next blog: Healthy Messages to Transmit When Children Are Grieving.

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network