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To be the parent of a grieving child is incredibly difficult since the parent is often grieving, too. How does a parent attend to their own grief while holding and guiding their child through their own experience of a loss? This is a question that comes from the voice of a parent who is hurting and trying very hard to just keep their own head above the waves of grief. There are no reserves of energy to channel into the needs of their child. The result is a parent in grief who now has the added burden of guilt as they struggle to be present to their child and offer them hope they cannot even hold for themselves. Next to the pain of the loss, this pain is almost unbearable.

Have you ever noticed how a child who observes an adult in pain will quickly move toward the adult to pat them on the back or offer them some sign of comfort? Children depend on the adults in their lives for almost everything. Thus, when a parent or caregiver is hurting, the child senses their world may also be threatened. At a deep level, the child is asking, “What if this person can no longer be here for me?”

In response to this question, the child then responds in a protective way, offering comfort to mom or dad. It is this act of protection that signals the primary need of the grieving child; to be assured of their safety regardless of the loss that has occurred. What is needed is for the adult to respond with touch and words assuring the child of their continued role of being their mother or father no matter what may happen. Letting the child know that his lunch will still be packed and ready to go to school and upon returning from school, there will be someone at home to ask about the day is like offering a “lifeline” to the child. When a child is assured that his parent is still the parent, he knows that a major piece of his world is still intact.

It is a misconception that the primary experience of grief for a child is sadness. In fact, the grieving child is primarily worried and anxious. This response of anxiety means the grieving child is often more clingy and in need of extra affection and touching. It also means that structure is more important than ever. I often hear parents struggling with disciplining their grieving child, saying to themselves, “I feel so badly that my child has had to experience this loss so early in life. It’s hard to be firm when I’m feeling so sorry for him or her.” Yet this is exactly when the child needs the consistency and firmness related to expectations and rules. When the child is experiencing a sense of their world being out of control, it is comforting and helpful to have clear boundaries at home. Knowing what is acceptable and what is not contributes to the child’s sense of safety and helps to ease the anxiety that comes with the loss of a family member.

Parenting a grieving child is also challenging as the child needs to tell and retell the story of the loss. Depending on the developmental level of the child, there is often little understanding of the permanence and irreversibility of death. Thus, the child may ask repeatedly about when their loved one will be coming home. They may ask again and again about what happened. This is extremely difficult for the parent who is also grieving and may find it painful to tell and re-tell the details of the loss. However, responding to the child’s need without judgment is crucial. If the child senses that his questions are frustrating or irritating to the parent, he or she will no longer be open to asking the questions on his mind or telling the story as he perceives it. Instead, the child will fill in their own answers, which are most often not correct and often damaging to the child. So, finding ways to be responsive to the questions and to listening to the story over and over is extremely important. Another option is to introduce, as an extension of your family, another trusted adult with whom the children will talk. Ask this person to be a listener as your children tell their loss story.

Copyright 2012 The Austin Center for Grief & Loss

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