Monday, December 3, 2012

Helping Children Process Grief


I am a big believer in giving children information and keeping them informed.  Our girls were 3 and 5 when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer.  We explained that in terms they could understand and she stressed the importance of not smoking to them.  They saw her when she was having chemo and all of her hair was gone and they understood that her medicine made her lose her hair.  I remember them asking if cold medicine could make them lose their hair and explaining the difference to them the best way that I could.  I believe that keeping kids informed helps them to understand and be better able to cope with grief.

My girls were aware when my uncle first went into the hospital and that a good friend of mine (who is a nurse) had said that it sounded like leukemia way before he was diagnosed.  They were aware of his diagnosis and the research on that diagnosis that I had done online.  They were aware of his doctor's recommendations, his response to treatment, and other things that were going on.  Piper wanted to believe that he would be okay, and although I wanted more than anything to protect her innocence, I felt it was important that I be honest and upfront with her.


We pray together throughout the day.  In the beginning, we prayed that he would get better; then we prayed for his doctors, that he not be anxious, that he know we loved him.  More recently we prayed for peace for him.

prayer helps us work through emotions
My girls know that when I get upset, when I feel powerless or alone, I go into my room and I get down on my knees and I pray.  Sometimes they join me.  Sometimes we talk to God together out loud.  I feel this is modeling healthy ways of handling grief.

Expressing Emotion

I grew up in a family where emotion was expressed openly and regularly.  I saw my parents, grandparents and my aunt and uncle cry openly when they were sad and when they were happy.  I knew from an early age that crying was an acceptable way of showing your feelings.  

Over the last five months, not a day has gone by where a thought or memory did not pop into my head and I would burst into tears.  It would happen at the mall, on vacation, at work...and my girls would rush to my side and comfort me.  At first I felt bad that my girls felt responsible for this, that they had to help keep their mom together.  Then I realized that my girls were learning to be comfortable with someone else's emotions; they were learning to offer comfort and they were learning that it is acceptable to cry when you are upset.

Whether you show your emotions outwardly or not, if your child is dealing with grief let them know that it is okay to cry or express the emotions they are feeling, let your child know that you are there for them to talk to about how they feel.


Different families may have different belief systems about what happens to us after we pass from this world.  Our family believes in heaven, we believe it is beautiful and there is no suffering there, we believe we are reunited with loved ones and our body takes on a new form.  We have shared those beliefs with our girls.

We also believe that my uncle will always be with us in some way whether it be just in our heart and mind or something more, we have no idea.  But we believe that sometimes, when we miss him, we can talk to him and he will know.  We have shared that with the girls as well, but we have let them know that not everyone believes this and it is up to them and what they feel comfortable with.

I would encourage parents and family members who are helping a child to process grief to share their beliefs on the matter.  Depending on your religious or spiritual beliefs, share something you have read with your child.  If you feel it is necessary, seek out your pastor or other mentor to speak with your child.


We live on the East Coast and we are Italian.  We have wakes or viewings, where friends and family of the deceased gather together in a funeral home, the deceased may be present in a coffin or, if they were cremated, their remains may be in an urn.  This past summer, my great uncle passed and my girls accompanied me to his wake.  It was their first wake.

My uncle's wake was their second wake and they did well with it.  They met some of his friends, they were hugged and kissed and consoled by family members and they, I believe, got some closure on the situation.

I think that closure is important in situations like this, whether it be getting together with mutual friends of the deceased for a Memorial service, just talking to friends or having a more formal service.  I know depending on their ages, it does not always seem appropriate to have children at these services, but you could bring them to the cemetery after or show them the urn, whatever you feel is appropriate.  Talking with the child about how this person was loved and revered may help as well.


Since my girls were very young, my uncle has slept over on Christmas Eve, he has read them 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and had them bang on his door in the morning so he could enjoy them opening all of their gifts and then help Jason prepare an elaborate meal for our extended family.  It is going to be difficult this Christmas.  It may feel like something is missing.  I intend to talk to the girls about this.  There may likely be tears.  There may be a point of remembrance and honoring my uncle.

One lesson that I hope to make clear to my girls is that those who are important to us who have gone before should be remembered and talked about with reverence.  I hope that when my girls have children they tell their children about their great-uncle sleeping over on Christmas Eve, what a kick he got out of all of their gifts, how he loved the Wii and how he helped their dad make a huge meal for Christmas Day.

I would encourage anyone trying to process grief that when they are ready it is important to honor the memory of the person by speaking about the good times you had.  Talking about good memories helps to keep that person alive in our hearts.