Ways to help children process loss

Ways to help children process loss

I work with people who have a terminal diagnosis. What I’ve learnt about loss, however, is not limited to my experience as a practitioner. I’ve also learnt about loss through being a mother, through my divorce, and through the many transitions of growth and ageing that are a typical part of the human experience.

Loss is everywhere. If we fear it and try to avoid it, we are fighting a losing battle. Loss catches up with us, and if not expressed or addressed, it manifests in a myriad of challenging ways. Loss is simply another part of life, and if we can learn to accept it, and even embrace it, we stand to experience a greater depth and quality of living.

My children had their first experience of loss when my marriage ended and their father moved out of our family home. The last three years of solo parenting has been a steep learning curve for my children and me, and we have learnt that pain and sorrow are normal and completely acceptable emotions. We have learnt that we need not be afraid of missing someone – instead we can talk and share and embrace the feelings that arise from this. We have learnt that ‘love’ is a verb – a doing word – and we love by being present, together and caring with and for each other. We have learnt that just as we need rain to keep our gardens growing and our rivers full, we need experiences of loss to breathe urgency and energy into our lives.

I would like to share what I have learnt through personal and professional experience:

Talk. Children need to talk about the person that has gone: to say their name, to reflect, to reminisce. The pain is there already. Voicing it will not make it worse. On the contrary, keeping memories alive is very comforting, and talking about the absent friend or relative enables that person to be celebrated and remembered. It is a necessary part of coming to terms with the enormous change that has occurred.

Listen. There is no wisdom that you can impart that will take away the reality of a difficult situation. Understand that for the majority of people, it is enough to feel heard. Take the pressure off yourself to ‘solve the problem’ or provide ‘an answer’, and simply listen. Let your child say whatever it is they need to say. You’ll be surprised to see that, in fact, all they need from you is to be witness to what is troubling them, and to know that you are paying attention to them.

Answer questions repeatedly and immediately. Repetitive questions are part of the way a child processes grief. My children asked me the same questions again and again after their father left (“Where has Dad gone?” “Why did he leave?” “Is Daddy coming home?”) and although, at times, I struggled to go over the same old ground, each time they asked I took a deep breath and responded with the same patient answers. Children’s attention spans are limited, so try to answer their questions straight away. I worked hard not to look uncomfortable, as that could have created the impression that talking about these things was not allowed. Be clear and direct, and don’t be afraid to say if you don’t know the answer to their questions. Use language that they understand, and avoid terms that children are unfamiliar with.

Anticipate rapidly changing emotions. Children experience emotions in different ways to adults. Whilst adults may stay with a certain feeling for long spells, children can flit between emotions very quickly and quite unexpectedly. This is known as ‘puddle jumping’. Don’t be surprised if you deliver some difficult news, and your child responds apparently flippantly. Try not to be too confused or worried if one minute they are awash with grief and the next they are laughing and joking. This seems to me to be a normal way for children to process their emotions. They can (and often do) move from one feeling to the next very quickly. Also, allow your child to see that you too are hurt or upset. This helps to give the message that their own difficult emotions are acceptable.

Be creative. Remember, children communicate in a greater variety of ways than we do as adults. Providing the tools for them to do this in a way that they are comfortable with will facilitate a ‘purging’ of their internal dialogue. They may use toys, art, music, performance (my son likes to do plays for me) and metaphor, to share their inner thoughts and feelings. The more opportunity children have to engage with their emotions in this way, the better for them and their emotional health. Use books to begin discussions about dying. Reflect upon the impermanence of nature – flowers withering, leaves falling. The death of a pet provides another opportunity to normalise conversations about dying.

Set aside time to connect quietly. I find a long, slow bedtime routine helps my sons and me to connect at the end of each day. I try not to ask many questions, but allow the children space to raise the issues they wish to address. By asking questions like, “Do you miss your dad?” I might initiate a conversation about something that may not currently be troubling them. They might also feel pressure to respond in an effort to please me, thinking, “Should I say yes, or no? What is the right answer?” Leaving the conversation agenda open enables children to raise whatever is of relevance to them at the time.

Stay open to your child’s pain. Try not to fear your child’s emotional pain. Distress is a normal reaction to loss, and emotions need to be felt before they will go away. Your child’s sadness and grief is a typical part of processing bereavement. As a parent I believe we simply need to provide the safe space for this pain to be aired and shared. The acute agony WILL pass, and life WILL continue, albeit somewhat differently.

Expect behavioural changes. Don’t be surprised if you see some changes to your child’s general behaviour. Hopefully these will be temporary, and as the emotional pain subsides, so too should the new behaviours. Children may start bed-wetting, having nightmares and night waking; they may become clingy and experience separation anxiety; they may express feelings of guilt, depression, confusion and fear; they may seem emotionally volatile and unpredictable; they may express anger, push you away and withdraw socially. In my experience, it is usually at these times (when their behaviour is at its most challenging) that our children need our love the most. Beware the temptation to chastise and push away. What my boys often need is quite the opposite, and angry distressed behaviour met with love and compassion is likely to de-escalate far quicker than if it’s met with control or rejection. It can really go against my impulses, but I try as best I can to remember to bring my child close when their behaviour is pushing me away.

On the positive side, I do believe that the experience of loss has the potential to equip us with some unique skills. We can gain resilience, the ability to tolerate adversity and bounce back from difficult experiences. Resilient children are described as brave, curious and adaptable. Most people develop resilience with age, but for children, however, resilience is something that needs to be learned and nurtured. It will develop through exposure to challenges, and through the experience of successfully coming through difficult times. When a child is assisted to navigate their grief, a knowledge develops within them that they can cope with hard times, and a resilient child emerges.

We can also learn that everything that is living must die. This is a fact of life. And to deny this does our children an enormous disservice. Personal experience of death and other forms of loss, if managed carefully, can provide children with an emotional awareness and an understanding of personal relationships that goes beyond the superficial. Just as we cannot expect happiness without sadness, we cannot expect life without loss.

One of the most valuable gifts that adversity delivers is an acute awareness of the worth of those around us. Loss enables us to focus on the friends and family that we continue to relate to, and reminds us to cherish those that we have with us now.


Cath Darling is a single parent of two young boys. She works predominantly as a Macmillan occupational therapist in palliative care. She also runs an aquatic therapy service, and her own small natural skincare business. Cath loves the great outdoors and, when not working, can be found surfing, swimming, rock climbing and building campfires at the beach with her sons.

First published in Issue 65 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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