This post is primarily about children ages 3-6 - while many of the tips would work well with older children, this age range is the developmental level I am focusing on.
Dealing with my own grief through our losses has been one thing, helping my 4 year old navigate the tangled ball of emotion that is grief was something entirely different. Even as a Master's level Psychologist trained in working with children, this process has been difficult and up until recently left me wondering if I made the right choices. When we decided to tell H about the baby at 14 weeks, we never imagined that something terrible would happen again and in the wake of our grief I found myself wondering if I had made the wrong decision.
It has been recent that I have seen the fruit of this process in H's life and feel confident that the lasting impression he will have from this time in his life is a positive one. So, how can parents, therapists, counselors help young children navigate this road of grief? Well, each child is different and will respond differently to trauma, but here are some general things that have been helpful for us.
- Be as honest as you can with the child about the event. Use language that is accurate but appropriate. Don't use euphemisms, like "he's sleeping" or "he went to a better place" to describe death. Children at this age are extremely literal and these kinds of explanations will only make them more confused about what happened.
- If you talk about heaven, be careful about saying things like, "God needed another angel" or "God loved him so much he needed him in heaven." These kinds of phrases may make young children feel scared of God or going to heaven or afraid that God may "take" them away too.
- Expect some period of regression in some area. Whether it is behavior, toileting, sleeping, there is likely going to be some previously mastered skill that appears to regress. Children may become more clingy, need more reassurance, or be more emotional. For us, H had a lot more trouble going to sleep and expressed many more fears about things he hadn't previously been afraid of. We are approaching four months later and things still aren't back to "normal" in this area, but we're working on embracing the new normal.
- If the loss is of a child they never met, like ours, it was more confusing for H to process the loss of someone he never knew. In the days following he wanted to pretend there was a baby and even recently continues to play out death with toys and pretend I have a baby. This is actually really normal for kids this age as they process things primarily through play. The themes and words may be disturbing to you, but for the child this is their way of working out grief and trying to understand the permanence of death.
- Giving the child a concrete way to honor a loved one or remember the loss helps them give expression to their feelings in a way that is appropriate for their age. For us, we put together a mosaic stepping stone together and talked about how this would help us remember our baby because we were never going to see him on Earth again.
- Leave it to kids to ask the hardest questions - and they will. "Why did our baby have to die?", "Am I going to die?", "Why can't you have a baby in your tummy again?", and the list goes on. There is no perfect answer to these questions, but it is important to address them and keep answering them to the best of your ability as they will likely be asked over and over again. This is a normal process for kids and is kind of like their way of checking in with you.
- Some kids want to talk about the loss immediately and frequently, other kids will hardly mention it and will not bring it up. For H, he wanted to tell everyone important to him about it and in the weeks following would tell teachers, family, friends about what happened. He asked a lot of questions of me and was immediately concerned that Mommy and Daddy felt better and weren't sad anymore. I want him to feel like it is okay to talk about, so I let him talk about it whenever he wants to for as long as he wants, but I don't press it or ask him about it if he doesn't seem to want to talk about it.
- That being said, don't hide your feelings. It is okay for your kids to see you cry, to know that you are not okay. It is important to use your own judgement with this, but children, even young children are very intuitive and will know that you are not okay. H did not like to see me cry, but I assured him each time that I was going to feel happy again, but at that moment was still very sad. Naming our feelings for our kids will help them recognize those feelings in themselves and give them words to use to communicate them later.
- When we gave the baby a name (we didn't know the sex at the time of the loss) and told H it was a boy, it seemed to help him personify the baby. He wanted to know what he looked like and talks about him by name (or nickname... he says he wants to call him "Michelangelo").
- Talk with your child about your healing. I have done this sporadically, but when I find myself feeling joyful, hopeful, or at peace - I tell him and acknowledge how God gives us good things and we have so many things to be grateful for. This not only models habits that I want in my own heart, but assures our children that God really does bring healing.
I don't know that we have navigated this road perfectly and it has been painful to see my child grieve, but we have had conversations this week that have made my heart smile. We talked about fear and what it really means for Jesus to keep us safe. We talked about how loving God and following Jesus doesn't mean bad things won't happen to us; how God can bring us joy even when bad things happen... And he gets it! I'm not sure H would really be able to know and understand these things without walking this road with us and going through his own grief. I hope this is helpful - I found myself kind of at a loss wondering how to navigate this with young children.