Children With Grief
EXCERPTS FROM: CHILD SURVIVORS OF SUICIDE
A Guidebook For Those Who Care For Them. by Rebecca Parkin with Karen Duinne-Maxim. (available from the New Jersey Chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
What do I tell the children? Children need to be told the truth in a way that is honest and straightforward. They should be told of the suicidal nature of the death from the beginning in a way that they can understand. If possible, you may wish to rehearse what needs to be said to be sure that your statements will be honest and supportive. Repeat the facts if necessary and check to see whether they have understood what you have said.
As an example, one mother told her young child that “Daddy had something like a heart attack except it was a brain attack. Some sickness came over his brain and made his thinking unclear. He was not in his right mind when he ended his life.”
Let them express their feelings. Listen to and address their questions and concerns. If the children can’t keep listening to you, recognize that this is a normal way for many people to handle painful facts. Stop and let them know that they can approach you at any time if they want to talk about it later.
Rationale: Withholding the truth from children interferes with the grieving process. Children can work through the trauma best when they are told the truth and have their feelings acknowledged and accepted as they are. Answer questions in way that fit the child’s developmental stage and concept of death. Emphasize that the death has nothing to do with anything the child did and does not mean that the deceased didn’t love them.
What reactions should I expect? Children may experience the same range and intensity of feelings that many adults do. These may include shock, numbness, denial, sadness, anger, anxiety, shame and guilt. (See the chart at the end of the booklet.) Children may express their feelings by crying, withdrawing, laughing, or expressing anger at you or others.
Rationale: All of these reactions are normal. They are based on the child’s experiences and concepts of death. The children need your tolerance as they resolve their confusion and frightening feelings. Preschoolers tend to believe that death is temporary and reversible. A common question may be “Will Daddy be home for Christmas?” Elementary school children begin to recognize that death is permanent, but they tend to personify death as a ghost or monster who will snatch children away.
How can I help the children? However the children respond, they need to know that they may express their feelings openly without being condemned, and that you will support them emotionally as they handle the experience. Like you, the children need time to understand and live through their reactions. Including younger children in what’s going on may help reduce their fears of losing you. Older children may be comforted by your listening and validating their concerns and by encouraging and helping them return to routine activities with their peers.
Children have less experience to make sense of their reactions and know fewer ways to express their feelings. The confusion of feelings may be masked by their behavior, which may appear “as usual”. Children may not show grief by crying, being sad or behaving as we might expect. In fact, continuing their routine play or activities may be the best way the child knows to control and reduce confusing and frightening feelings.