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Parents Can Help Children Through Grief

May 6, 2010
By Betsy Bethel


Life Associate Editor

Children are resilient creatures, but grief can take its toll if the adults in their lives are uncertain how to deal with it, according to grief experts.

Article Photos

Photo by Mike Palmer
Parents, teachers and students attend a candlelight vigil in St. Clairsville Tuesday in honor of Adam Snider, a sixth-grader who died following a dirt bike accident Saturday. Attending gatherings to remember a loved one can be an important factor in a child’s recovery after a loss.

In the wake of sixth-grader Adam Snider of St. Clairsville's death from a dirt bike accident Saturday, many Ohio Valley parents of children who knew Adam may feel a sense of uncertainty and anxiety about how they can best help their children through this difficult period of grief.

The most important thing parents can do when a child loses a loved one is to answer their questions honestly, said Larry Darrah, a pediatric nurse practitioner with Wheeling Hospital's Center for Pediatrics, in the office of Dr. Judy Romano in Martins Ferry. Darrah also is a thanatologist, someone who specializes in helping people through grief.

"Parents often say children are too young to understand. Well, that may be, but they are not too young to feel," Darrah said, and they may have questions about what they are feeling. "Feeling the pain is the first step, not denying it."

Fact Box

Helping Children Grieve

1. Reassure the child that she will be taken care of, loved and nurtured as before. The greatest fear of most bereaved children is that of being abandoned.

2. Touch, hold and hug the child. Non-verbal communication is the most powerful and direct way of telling the child that you care.

3. Explain to the child that nothing he did or did not do caused this terrible thing to happen.

4. Encourage the child to ask questions about anything that is on his mind. Do this on many occasions.

5. Answer the child's questions simply, directly and honestly. Children are quick to sense deceptions and mis-truths.

6. Be tolerant. Grieving children may regress in their development.

7. Consider working together to complete a scrapbook of memories. Include lots of photos and things the child wants to include.

8. Encourage the child to draw pictures often and for older children to keep a diary or journal.

9.. You know what is "normal" behavior for your child. Grieving children may "act out" more than usual and their behavior may regress.

10. Don't hide your own emotions from your child. It's OK to let her see you cry, and if she asks "what's wrong?" share your feelings at that time.

Source: Larry Darrah


"Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss" (all ages) by Pat Schweibert and Chuck DeKlyen

"It Must Hurt A Lot" (ages 4-10) by Doris Sanford

"The 107 Good Things About Barney" (all ages) by Judith Viorst

"When Someone Very Special Dies" (ages 5-12) by Marge Heegard

"Aarby the Aardvark Finds Hope" (all ages) by Donna O'toole

"The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide" by Helen Fitzgerald

Web Sites See LINKS

While every child (and adult) deals with grief individually, experts have determined that there are several common ways people grieve. A fact sheet titled "The Grief of Children" provided by Darrah lists these seven ways:

1. Shock - The child may not believe the death really happened and will act as though it did not. This is usually because the thought of death is too overwhelming.

2. Physical symptoms - The child may have various complaints, such as headache or stomachache, and may fear that he too will die.

3. Anger - Being mostly concerned with his own needs, the child may be angry at the person who died because he feels he has been left "all alone." He may be angry that God "allowed" the death or did not heal the person.

4. Sadness - The child may show a decrease in activity.

5. Guilt -The child (or adult) may think he caused the death by having been angry with the person who died, or he may feel responsible for not having been "better" in some way.

6. Anxiety and fear - The child may fear some other person he loves will die. He may cling to his parents or ask other people who play an important role in his life if they love him.

7. Regression - The child may revert to behaviors he had previously outgrown, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.

Darrah said these reactions should be met with understanding by parents.

"The parent would know better than anybody what is the normal routine for their child," he said. "It's tough with the middle school age, the adolescents, because they may be going through behavior changes anyway," he added.

These symptoms of grief can be expected within the first week or two after the loss, Darrah said. If, several weeks out, the child's grades are dropping, their appetite has increased or decreased dramatically, or the child has isolated himself from family and friends, the parent should consider having a pediatrician or psychologist evaluate the child.

Darrah said parents also can support their children by encouraging them to talk about their friend, gather with other friends, and journal or create art to express their feelings. Attending vigils, such as the one held Tuesday in St. Clairsville, and memorial services also can be helpful

"Children should be allowed to attend the funeral if they want to, but they shouldn't be forced to," Darrah said.

For the most part, parents should try to adhere to the child's normal routine. Research following school shootings has shown children do best when they get back to school and talk with their friends in group settings, especially when a counselor is present. It's important they continue with sports and other activities, as usual.

"I think it's best to keep their life as normal as you can," he said.

When attending a funeral or visiting with family members, it is difficult to know what to say.

"The reason people have so much trouble knowing what to say at times like this is there isn't a good thing to say. People come up with some really crazy things," Darrah said, citing such phrases as "He's in a better place" or "God needed another angel." Those types of sentiments are better left unexpressed because they can make the grieving parties angry at the expresser or at God."

"The main thing they can do is just be there for the person, say you're sorry and ask how you can help. Don't try to say anything to cheer them up, because it just won't work."

Darrah also cautioned parents, in light of the manner in which the St. Clairsville youngster died, not to have a knee-jerk reaction of forbidding their children to ride dirt bikes or all-terrain vehicles indefinitely.

"I think it's wise to be concerned, and they should encourage safety precautions, but it's not OK to go overboard on the overprotectiveness," Darrah said.

A final note from Susan Woolsey, author of "The Grief of Children" fact sheet: "In helping children understand and cope with death, remember four key concepts: be loving, be accepting, be truthful and be consistent."



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