What to Say when Children are Grieving

In my last post, I invited you to consider some of the messages to avoid conveying to your children when they are grieving a real or perceived loss.

Messages that support instead of criticize a grieving child

I based the information on Jean Illsley Clarke’s book Connections: The Threads That Strengthen Families (pages 159 – 161) in which she offers excellent advice on supporting children through their natural grieving processes.

Some of the messages she recommends parents transfer to their grieving children are:

  • Take your time
  • It’s okay to make a big deal of it
  • There is no right or perfect way to express your sadness
  • It’s okay to be emotional
  • You can cry if you want to
  • You can feel so angry that this has happened
  • It’s hard to understand why some things happen
  • It’s okay to question why this happened
  • It’s important for you to talk about this when you are ready to talk
  • It’s okay to feel childlike right now (for older children and adolescents)
  • You didn’t deserve this
  • Take your time, there are no limits to how long you can feel sad
  • It’s okay to feel sad
  • It’s hard to accept that people you love die
  • It’s fine to cry
  • You are not feeling okay right now, and you don’t have to smile or make other people feel happy
  • You may cry as much and as often as you need to
  • Strong men/grown ups/ parents cry too
  • It’s fine for boys to cry
  • Real men are in touch with and know it is good to express their feelings
  • You don’t need to be tough
  • I’m happy to hear whatever you have to say
  • Let’s talk about how you’re feeling
  • It doesn’t feel okay right now

Some other specific responses when children are upset:

Listen, Process, Reflect

  • Provide many opportunities for your children to express thoughts and feelings.
  • When your children want to talk, if possible, stop whatever you’re doing and focus your attention on them.
  • Listen without judging, questioning or sharing your own stories.
  • Appreciate that children aren’t little people with little feelings. If anything, their feelings can be even more overwhelming than they are to adults because they are less able to process them, to use their abilities to think and rationalize.
  • Children are often the victims of magical thinking. If there is a major, more general tragedy as happened on 9/11, it can cause them to believe that all airplanes are dangerous, all tall buildings will be targeted, that the world is about to totter and fall, that terrorists are lurking in their towns, even able to come into their homes when everyone is asleep. Even news stories about children being kidnapped, attacked or abused can cause anxiety and fear in children.
  • When children have overwhelming fears and illogical beliefs, especially irrational ones, it is important NOT to discount the enormity of these fears and how real they feel or that their beliefs are silly.
  • Do not say things like, “You shouldn’t feel like that,” “You are just being silly,” “Just stop thinking about that – here, have a cookie and that will make you feel better,” “You are being too dramatic.” These kinds of messages minimize children’s feelings, and make it hard for them to talk about what is going on. If they don’t have ways to talk about it and feel accepted and appreciated, the feelings and thoughts stay trapped inside.
  • By being able to share feelings and thoughts freely, without fear of ridicule or criticism, allowing children to work through those feelings. It also models for them ways they should respond to others who are sad, grieving or overwhelmed by other feelings.

    Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about how the healthy messages Dr. Clarke shares and the ideas around listening, processing and reflecting make you feel. Are these the ways you are treated when you are anxious or grieving?
  2. If these healthier messages are new to you, you may need to rehearse saying them in order to be prepared when your children need to hear them.
  3. When you do transmit these healthier messages, notice how your children respond. Sometimes they get more emotional because someone is allowing them to have their feelings and eventually they calm down, can take in the comfort of knowing somebody genuinely cares for them and is okay with them expressing their feelings.

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