Helping Kids Deal with Loss
Written by: Barbara Postol
As bioethicists, we are often called upon to guide families through difficult times. One of the most difficult experiences for a child is the death of a parent. Adults struggle on what they should or should not tell children of all ages. I have often heard adults say, “I don’t want to tell Johnny how sick Mom is; I don’t want to scare him..” This is understandable, but kids are much more perceptive than we realize, often times they already know something is very wrong. And they are scared.
In the United States, more than a million children will lose a parent to terminal illness before they turn 15 years old. A lack of age appropriate communication regarding a parent’s illness is a big problem. Short term problems for kids include nightmares, disruptive behaviors, sleep disturbance, nervousness, and thoughts about illness and death. When this continues over time, problems lead into difficulties in school, generalized anxiety, depression substance use, or thoughts of suicide.
Honesty is important when dealing with illness or loss. Older children have a firmer understanding of death and loss. Adults are there to provide support and not necessarily the right answers. Children need not be given all of the information, but they should be given the information they are asking for to help them heal. Adults’ best role is to listen to children after a loss without judgment. Open ended responses to a child’s statement regarding loss or sadness are important ways that a child may begin to express more of their feelings. This also helps form a great sense of trust that the child is able to confide these difficult emotions. Children should be reminded that it is alright to talk about their loved one. Tributes such as making a card are good ways for children to honor their loved one. Children grieve differently than adults and at times they will just need to have a break from grieving, which is important for adults to remember. In sum, the role of an adult to help a child or teenager get through the loss of a parent is a kind and patient ear and an assurance that children and teens are not alone in their grief.