Grief: A Difficult Family Conversation
Grief is a difficult subject for many no matter our age. It’s a trauma that can rock the foundations of our family and shut down normal communication. So how do you work through grief as a family? How do you help a child work through the loss of a family member when you’re struggling with your own grief?
Coming out of a very challenging year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that is often described as “confusing,” “frightening” and “frustrating” has many parallels to grief, says Andrew Farmer, a licensed professional counselor and manager of Great Circle’s trauma-informed training services. “It was almost like experiencing a death. Connections with classmates, co-workers, teachers, clubs and activities were lost,” he says. “In many ways, we all experienced trauma and grief.”
Tragically, many families lost loved ones to the pandemic, compounding the trauma because at a time when we most need our usual support networks, we couldn’t gather safely together as families to properly grieve or celebrate the person who was dear to us, he adds.
“Grief has stages – denial, anger, sadness and bargaining,” Farmer explains. “Traumatic grief overwhelms our body’s ability to cope. It’s difficult to get up and go to work, to complete school assignments. Grief disrupts your day-to-day experiences and creates disorder.”
The lack of routine can have a significant impact on a child, and often they react in extreme ways – from abnormal anger or misbehavior to physical and emotional withdrawal. Often, children’s response to trauma and grief is influenced by the adults around them. And with fewer life experiences to draw upon, children also are more likely to have anxiety during the stress of grief.
Susie McGaughey, Great Circle therapist who works with children in the organization’s specialized education program, says parents need to assess what works best for their child. “Are they a need-to-know kid or will too much information increase their anxiety?”
“Often adults have a compulsion to shield kids from difficult situations. It feels like we’re protecting them, but it can be to their detriment,” McGaughey explains. “If we don’t provide our kids with the true story, they will create a story for themselves. The danger is they create something that’s probably way worse than the reality.”
Because even adults struggle with managing or talking about grief, Farmer and McGaughey agree it’s best to assess your own emotional state first and then watch for cues as you discuss the situation with your child.
“Approach these topics with calm, but don’t be afraid to share your feelings with your child. It’s okay to let our kids know we’re sad . . . or nervous or afraid . . . or whatever you’re feeling,” says McGaughey. “Letting them see you cry and then also get up and keep moving serves as a model for them about building resilience and understanding it’s okay to express your feelings. It shows them that someone can feel sad and still move forward. And sharing your feelings gives kids permission to share their feelings with you.”
Farmer encourages parents to listen for the words their child is using to guide the conversation and remember kids often won’t talk about something directly. “For instance, if a child is being bullied, instead of saying ‘I got bullied yesterday,’ you might hear something like ‘Billy has been annoying me lately,’ ” he says. “Take that as a cue to respond with ‘Help me understand what’s going on’ to take the conversation deeper and validate their feelings.”
Farmer says the most important first step for anyone experiencing grief or anxiety is to acknowledge that a trauma has occurred. The second step is to care and have compassion about it. “We work daily with clients to let them know we care and we are there to listen.”
McGaughey adds that both adults and children need to process through grief at their own pace. “If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t force it,” she says. “We talk about grief bursts – it comes out in waves. With kids, know you’re probably going to have these conversations over and over again, especially with grief connected to a death. So be ready and be open to talking about it when the topic comes up. Don’t let those conversations become taboo.”
Here are two resources for children and families dealing with grief:
http://annieshope.org/ - Nonprofit focused on providing comprehensive support services to children, teens and their families who are grieving a death.
https://childrengrieve.org/find-support/9-find-support/31-programs-in-missouri - National Alliance for Grieving Children website includes links to a variety of grief support programs throughout Missouri.