Children’s Bereavement and Emotional Wellness, Part 2

Author: Andrea Hug

As grieving parents, we are concerned about the care and support we are able to offer our grieving children. How can we help children bounce back when they have experienced a profound loss or trauma? How do we offer good bereavement support for children? How do we help others to help our children? Consider the following topics in light of your child’s loss. Go through the bullet points with your children to help them evaluate their own thoughts and feelings on the topic. It will raise your awareness of the issues a bereaved child faces and give your child a place to say what needs to be said.

little girl tire swing

Who’s got your back? Exploring support

When someone very close to you dies, your idea of relationship changes drastically. Someone who was supposed to be there is no longer there in a tangible way. Who can we count on now? Who can we trust? The experience of upheaval challenges everything we rely on and expect. Exploring this dimension of loss with your child is critical for all future relationships. A child needs to understand what support is, how it helps, and how to ask for that help. Knowing there are still people in their lives that they can count on and ask for help allows them to feel safe. 

  • Explore support in the family. Who has been supportive? Who has not? Who has tried but what they did wasn’t helpful? Who helps you when you have a bad day? 
  • Explore support within yourself. What characteristics do you have that help you when you feel sad? What are some coping skills that you learned since your loved one died? What things have you figured out that help? Does talking about your feelings help? How?
  • Explore support through your friends. Do you have a best friend that you talk to? Is there a friend who helps you laugh even when you feel bad? Did your friends come to support you when your loved one died? What do you like to do with your friends?
  • Explore support in the community. Is there a coach or teacher you like who would help if you had a problem? Is there a doctor who can help you when you are sick? Who helps you find a book at the library? Do you have a clergy member who has supported you? 
What happened? Learning to tell the story

Bereaved children have had an experience that has profoundly altered their lives. The details a child shares about that story are very important. As your child grows, the story will change as new understanding develops. Learning how to tell the story is essential. Situations will arise when the child will be asked about what happened. Elaborating on their own stories helps children establish what they know and what they need more information about. It helps them face the parts of the story that are scary or that they don’t know how to say. As they tell the story, they can learn to live with it and incorporate it into their hearts.

Telling the story includes what happened. As a child tells the story, the events are highlighted: the sickness, accident, or cause of the death; finding out about the death; the rituals that followed; and what happened afterwards. A child may have a public story and a private story.

  • What do you know about the death? A child may not have all the pieces of the story. These can be filled in by adults who support the child but must be done in a gentle way. 
  • What do you believe happened? Understand that children tell the story from their own perspective. If a child is misinformed, give him the opportunity to tell the story as he believes it to be true. Give honest, gentle, age-appropriate facts if the facts are incorrect. 
  • What did you leave out? Pay attention to the parts of the story that the child is not comfortable telling. Gently help by asking questions, offering vocabulary, and honoring the struggle.
Why do I feel this way? Talking about emotions

Feelings are neither right nor wrong; they just are. And when a child experiences a profound loss, the feelings are huge. Often children have not learned how to identify or articulate their feelings. And if they cannot do that, they have an even harder time actually feeling them. Most children are able to talk about positive feelings—happy, glad, excited, or joyful. However, the darker emotions can overwhelm a child and, without the emotional intelligence to deal with them, a child sometimes makes bad choices about what to do with them.

A bereaved child is a perfect candidate to learn about emotional intelligence. According to Wikipedia, emotional intelligence is “the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions.” Children can have many dark emotions such as loneliness, sorrow, guilt, sadness, worry, anxiety, hopelessness, despair, and fear. These are hard to identify, articulate, and work through without coaching. Offer a safe place to explore the feelings. Teaching children that all people have these feelings gives them confidence that they will get through the feelings even if they are difficult. It is important to normalize the feelings and explore how to manage them. 

  • What is an example of a difficult emotion? 
  • Who would you talk to about those emotions?
  • Can you think of a time when you had a BIG emotion and it went away? What happened?
  • Who helps you when you feel: afraid, lonely, sad, anxious, worried, hopeless, etc? What do they do that helps? 
  • What makes you feel better?
I wish I may, I wish I might? Exploring hopes and wishes together

Most children are optimistic and have a natural curiosity that encourages them to strive to new heights. Hope is what powers us onward and helps us to extend ourselves to reach for more. Bereaved children have had their world crash in on them far too early in their lives. They feel more vulnerable than children who have not faced such a loss. They have to deal with tremendous disappointment and the realization that bad things happen to good people.

Children may not want to wish or hope if they think there is nothing to believe in. This is precisely why it is important to explore this area with them. Without hopes and wishes, children may lose their natural curiosity about their future. Even though they have experienced tragic loss, there is still room for exploring hopes and wishes. They need to know that with effort, some good things will happen, they can make a difference, and change comes from within. Sometimes, all their efforts will not produce the end result they hoped for, but the attempt is still worth it because they have gotten farther than if they had not tried. Children will learn coping skills as they go forward and explore their hopes and wishes: courage, determination, integrity, honesty. Asking questions helps your children explore this issue. 

  • What if you try? 
  • What if you try hard and your wish doesn’t come true? 
  • What if you hope for something that can’t come true? 
  • Did the person who died influence your hopes and wishes for yourself? 
  • What do you want to be when you grow up? 
  • Can you think of a hope or wish that you can make to help yourself achieve your goal?
What’s next? 

Once you have read this article, we hope you will spend some time with your children brainstorming individual coping techniques for yourself and for them. Use photos, magazine pictures (collages work well here), drawings, writing, and crafts. Together, you will grow emotional wellness and give your children the tools they need to manage their loss.

Andrea HugBy Andrea Hug, MaPC, MPS, LCPC: Andrea Hug is the surviving spouse of Lieutenant Christian A. Hug, USNR, a search and rescue helicopter pilot who died in 1993. She holds master's degrees in both Pastoral Counseling and Pastoral Studies from Loyola University in Chicago, and is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She worked for two years with TAPS Adult Survivor Care Team, having spent the previous six years working in hospice with young surviving widows and children.