Friday, December 17, 2010

Dealing with loss


When a crisis occurs, how do we help our children with their grief?
A distressing incident occurred in my family this week that has prompted me to write on a topic that I’ve probably avoided in the past.
My beloved aunt (my mother’s sister) was involved in a car accident in New Zealand and is currently in intensive care riddled with injuries from her head to her toes.
She won’t make it back to Australia to be with her family (including four grandchildren) for Christmas, and while we are all very grateful she survived the crash, we are also sick with worry about the pain she is enduring.
My grandmother is also in hospital, so there have been many tears shed, and my eldest daughter has been asking questions which can be hard to answer.
It has made me realise that dealing with difficult and emotional situations like this is hard enough for us, but it must be even more confusing for children.
Children may experience many different kinds of loss in their lives and this can be devastating for them.

Loss does not just mean a death in the family of a loved one, or a pet, but it can also be felt when moving schools, having a friend move away, or through divorce.
While nothing prepares us for a sudden loss of a loved one, experiencing smaller losses such as a death of a pet, does help children when a more significant loss occurs.
When loss is sudden, there is more confusion and distress because there is much less time for them to adjust.
Author Michael Grose in his book Thriving! says there are a number of things that parents can do when children experience a significant loss.
These include: talking about the death or loss so you can get a sense of how your kids feel about the situation; sharing thoughts and feelings; inviting children to talk about the feelings they have; reassure them that feelings of sadness and helplessness are normal; and finally, involve them in rituals including funerals.
“Dealing with loss is a long journey and children usually go through the same stages of grieving as adults, but it’s not always a continual process,” Grose says.
“Some kids act out, develop behavioural problems or withdraw after the death of a loved one.
“At times like these, it is best to be empathetic and let your son or daughter know that you feel sad too.
“You can also explain to them that your sadness sometimes makes you get angry or lose your patience.”
It’s important to be honest with your child and encourage questions.
Create an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send the message that there’s no one right or wrong way to feel.
Sometimes children may be sad one minute and later appear happy and carefree, so they should not be made to feel guilty for this.
A child’s capacity to understand death will vary according to the child’s age.
Until a child is about five or six years old, their view of the world is very literal, so it is best to explain death in basic terms.
Children can sometimes have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die and won’t come back, so they may continue to ask where the loved one is or when they are returning.
Try not to use euphemisms such as telling them that the loved one “went to sleep” or that your family “lost” the person, because they will believe these terms literally and may become fearful of going to sleep or that they, too, will end up lost.
From the age of six to 10, children will start to understand the finality of death and may think of it as the bogeyman or a ghost, but they may also believe that things they do can influence death. For example, if they make a wish, grandma won’t die.
When they mature into teens they understand that every living thing eventually dies regardless of anything they do.
Teenagers understanding about death may involve questions about mortality and vulnerability, and it’s a good time to remind them about ways to stay safe and healthy. 
For example, if they see a car accident on the news involving young drivers, it provides an opportunity to discuss wearing seatbelts, not drinking while driving, and the dangers of speeding.
If a teen is struggling with grief, or experiencing guilt (such as “why did he/she die and not me?”) there are resources that can help from books to counselling.
Children learn about life from their parents so how you deal with situations affects how your children handle their lives.
Children need to understand that bad things do happen, but that it is how we deal with them that counts.
There is an excellent and extensive article on the Raising Children Network that can help parents facing tough times. Visit http://raisingchildren.net.au and search for “Coping with a crisis”.

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