The Grief of a Child: Helping Children Cope
By the time Michael Jackson’s memorial service was beamed to viewers around the world, the media circus surrounding his death had caused fans and foes alike to focus more on Jackson’s public and private dramas than on his untimely passing. But at the end of the service, when Jackson’s 12-year-old daughter, Paris, stepped to the microphone and fought through tears to tell the world, “I just wanted to say I love him so much,” everything changed, if only for a moment. In that instant, across the globe, hearts ached in witness to the profound grief of a child who lost her daddy.
How a child views the death of a parent
When a parent dies, a child’s sense of security and survival is threatened. The child is suddenly forced to deal with issues of illness, mortality and life after death – issues even adults find hard to face – long before they’ve had a chance to acquire the coping methods they’ll learn throughout life. As adults, we want to support and nurture the grieving child, but where do we begin?
A child’s grief is different
Dr. Cynthia L. Long (formerly Cynthia Long Lasher) – a Lutheran minister and grief specialist – reminds us that children grieve differently than adults. “Children grieve in spurts,” observes Dr. Long. “It’s a blessing, because to endure a terrible loss with no relief would just be too much for a child.” For instance, she’s found that playing helps children deal with their pain in a way that’s familiar to them, “sort of rationing out their pain by focusing on something else for a while.”
In her book, Death is No Stranger: Helping Children Grieve, Dr. Long offers practical strategies for guiding children through their grief. Among them:
- Avoid euphemisms. Talk to the child gently, in clear, direct language.
- Avoid use of the word “should.” Don’t say, “You should be happy,” or “You shouldn’t cry.” Such admonitions aren’t helpful for grieving children or adults.
- Allow children to be sad. “They desperately need someone to talk to about what they’re feeling, rather than making them feel they’re ‘wrong’ somehow,” says Dr. Long.
Resources to help children cope with grief
For more resources to help children cope with grief, contact your local hospice or pediatrician’s office, and visit the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center website, where you’ll find a recommended reading list of children’s books about grief.