- Katie Lear is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and mother of a young child.
- She wrote a book about helping children cope with grief.
- This is Lear’s story, as told to Kelly Burch.
This directed article is based on a conversation with Katie Lear. Edited for length and clarity.
When I was in middle school, my friend’s mother died unexpectedly. I called her and she did my best. I told her, “I heard your mother is not doing well.” My friend replied, “You can say that.”
Now that I’m a counselor, I can see that I’ve internalized the taboo in our society around death and grief. I felt that “death” and “death” were bad words – as if saying them would suddenly highlight my friend’s terrible loss. I was worried I might screw up the whole thing.
These days, after helping hundreds of families cope with grief, I know there is no way to spoil these conversations. Yes, they will be embarrassing, pretentious and painful. But the only way to really spoil them is to not have them at all.
Give children the opportunity to talk about grief more often
Death and sex are among the biggest taboos in American culture. We just don’t talk about it enough, and that creeps into parenting. But grief is a universal experience. We will all grieve at some point, and harm our children if we don’t help them. We also send them a signal that we can’t handle grief. I’ve often had kids tell me that they haven’t talked to their parents because their mom or dad isn’t ready yet.
As with birds and bees, you should abandon the idea of big talk. Instead, talk to your children more often about grief. Remember that grief can be caused by more than just death. Children who go through their parents’ divorce, move from one home to another, or are adopted go through intense grief.
I often hear from parents who want a transcript of these conversations. Unfortunately, there is not one true thing to say. The best we as parents can do is open up about the discussion.
I use “grief Jenga” to get the kids talking
When kids come to me for advice, I turn to play therapy. One of my favorite tools is Grief Jenga. Use colored templates or templates with colored labels on them. Each label represents a guide. Green might be a happy memory, purple might be something you don’t understand, and red might be something you miss. When you pull the block, you answer the prompt.
This is a powerful exercise because it gets kids to say things that might not be on top of their minds otherwise. And since the child and the caregiver take turns, this shows that you are also addressing your grief. When a child is sad, the parent is always sad too.
Children and parents experience grief differently
Parenting through grief can be overwhelming. But it’s a good idea to let your children see your grieving process. They can see you cry or get angry. Just make sure they also see that you are taking care of yourself.
Remember that children experience grief differently than adults. Their young minds can be overwhelmed with sadness, so they just let it go. You might see a child running around laughing and playing with friends and you assume they don’t grieve. But they are likely to step into that grief later that day. Getting in and out of grief is how children cope.
Grief can be debilitating at first, but it should become more bearable over time. If things go wrong, it’s time to seek advice. Not all children experiencing grief will need counseling, but I recommend it for children who have experienced a violent or sudden loss or death of their primary caregiver. Adults often need it to overcome the grief of complex or ambiguous relationships, such as mourning a miscarriage or the death of an ex-lover.
By talking about grief, we can help each other get through it, one conversation at a time.