Help Your Child Grieve
By Bill Conger
The death of a child is the one horrifying nightmare no parent ever expects to experience. Overwhelming grief floods your soul, leaving parents in nothing but survival mode. Taking care of the basics is physically and emotionally draining, but parents aren’t the only ones who have suffered a great loss. Living children have lost their brother or sister, and they need support. What can parents do?
Take care of yourself.
“A lot of times that’s met with ‘I don’t even have time to think about that,’ or ‘I don’t have energy to think about that,’” says Donna L. Schuurman, Ed.D., FT, Chief Executive Officer for The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families. “The health of the parents is a protective factor for surviving children.”
Physical essentials such as healthy eating and getting enough sleep are crucial as is surrounding yourself with a support network, which can be challenging.
“A lot of people, when they have a child die … talk about being silently stigmatized by other people as if it’s contagious or something. ‘I don’t know what to say so I think I’ll duck down this other aisle in the supermarket,’” said Schuurman. “There are a lot of people who get more isolated when they have a child die because of the pressure out there to look like you’re doing better,” she adds.
Work on your marital relationship.
Statistics reveal that within two years of a child’s death, 60 percent of married couples will divorce. “Make sure it’s a quality relationship, because if it isn’t, then the kids are going to be fearful Mommy and Daddy might break up,” said grief counselor David Opalewski.
“What kind of relationship you had prior to the death will color and influence and have some bearing on what happens afterward,” Schuurman says. “It’s not impossible for it to improve afterward, but if it’s already a little bit rocky, it doesn’t tend to improve because your child died.”
One factor that can help keep the marriage strong is to recognize that grief is
different in each person.
“What can be really helpful is when they permit each other and support each other in handling it in their own unique way instead of saying, ‘Why aren’t you crying? Don’t you care?’” Schuurman recommends.
“Don’t put grief expectations on one another because that will cause conflict between husband and wife, and the kids will pick that up right away,” Opalewski said.
Love on your children.
While parents are working through their sorrow, life goes on for their children too. It’s important to let surviving children know that you feel fortunate that they are still around. In their grief children go through a roller coaster of emotions from sheer panic and confusion to anger and denial.
“Young kids less than 12 tend not to be able to verbalize all these horrible things they’re feeling,” Opalewski says. “They communicate it in their behavior.”
Some children will not eat, eat too much, have trouble sleeping, experience nightmares, perform poorly in school, or become apathetic about everything. Overprotectiveness on both sides can occur too, leading to clinginess.
“One of the things that’s missed the most is overachievement,” Opalewski said. “The siblings put a lot of pressure on themselves to do well in school. They’re trying to make their parents happy again. Everybody thinks they’re doing great.”
The New Normal
Chores at home, returning to school or church, and sitting around the dinner table for the first time since a sibling’s death can feel strange at first. The smaller family will take on a new dynamic as you attempt to return to normalcy.
“Kids are really watching their parents to see how [they are supposed] to act and how will they respond if I ask this question?” Schuurman advises. “Is there an openness to talking about the deceased sibling? Can I bring up his name, or will it send them into the bedroom crying?”
Children want to keep the memory of their sibling alive. At the same time, they may question whether they contributed to their sibling’s death. Last week, I told him that I wished he were dead!
“I think a lot of kids, whether they realize or not, think that there might have been something they could have done or something they shouldn’t have done that could have changed the outcome, particularly if it’s sudden or unexpected,” Schuurman said.
If the death is caused by an illness, children may be scared that they will get it and die or wonder if it will kill anyone else in the family. Concerns like this underscore the importance of honest communication. Children will have lots of questions that need to be answered in an age-appropriate way. Trying to steer away from the truth could cause deeper damage.
“He may know more than you think he knows,” Schuurman said. “You’re doing this out of your concern and your pain and your hope to protect him. What will happen is that he’ll question everything then.”
Unfortunately, the road to emotional healing will be a painful and often confusing journey for you and your children. Providing reassurance, a strong line of communication, and a vigilant effort to strengthen your relationships will help lead you through the battle lines of despair.
Bill Conger has been a frequent contributor to ParentLife as well as many music publications. He is a school counselor, member of Smithville First Baptist Church, a Gideon, and father of a 10-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter.
This article originally appeared in ParentLife Magazine (March 2016) ParentLife.