Kindness and Empathy
The importance of being kind to ourselves when we are grieving.
This week we are focusing on the role of kindness and empathy in helping bereaved children and young people. When we are bereaved it is common to experience the kindness of others. After someone dies, the responses of other people are usually supportive and encouraging – friends and family will offer messages of sympathy, provide emotional support and help out with practical tasks such as cooking meals or arranging play dates for children. It is not difficult to be kind – it is a very normal and natural response to other people’s suffering.
The kindness of others can make a real difference to families who are trying to come to terms with, and cope with, the death of someone they love. Grief can feel overwhelming. For children and young people, grieving usually means experiencing a range of new and difficult feelings. While it can feel natural to respond to other people’s suffering with patience, understanding and compassion, being kind to oneself when you are grieving can sometimes be more challenging. Through our work supporting bereaved children and young people we can hear a tendency for them to talk to themselves in ways which are critical, negative, or harsh. Children and young people sometimes have expectations about what grief ‘should’ feel like and how they think they ‘should’ be able to cope saying things like “I should have been kinder to my dad when he was alive”, “It is wrong to feel angry with [the person who died]’ or “This is worse for [others] than it is for me”.
When thinking about how we can best support bereaved children and young people we encourage you to teach them to develop and practice what has been called ‘self-compassion’ or simply being kinder to themselves. Most of us are taught to be kind to others from a very early age but lessons in being kind to ourselves are often overlooked. Self-compassion or ‘self-kindness’ has shown to be particularly important in times of difficulty and suffering. It is not about feeling sorry for yourself or being weak but is about being understanding, accepting and kind to yourself rather than harsh and critical. We can all play a role in encouraging our children to be kinder to themselves. In doing so the following suggestions may be helpful:
Children will watch and learn from you. We have said elsewhere that modelling positive behaviours is the best way to teach your children how to cope with difficult times. Children need to be ‘shown’ how to be kind to themselves as they manage their grief. So don’t beat yourself up when you are having a bad day, try not to put yourself down when you feel that you ‘should’ be feeling better by now or tell yourself off for not being able to control your emotions. Actually demonstrating the importance of being kind to yourself is the most effective way to teach your children self-compassion. For younger children you can literally ‘show them’ how to give themselves a hug by wrapping their arms around themselves for a moment and taking some deep calming breaths.
Grief can be made up of lots of different feelings that can be confusing for children who may not have experienced them before. For children to learn to respond to their feelings in a positive way they need to be able to understand and talk about them. You can help by listening empathically and helping them to put names to their feelings. Responses such as “It sounds like you are feeling confused”, “Do you feel angry?”, “That sounds really hard” can be a starting point. Another tip is that if your child tells you “I’m angry” try saying “No....you’re [e.g. Tom]. But you’re feeling angry right now and that’s perfectly ok....” before going on to help them to unpick what was happening for them.
Children and young people can be helped to develop an emotional vocabulary for the intensity of their feelings, for example: learning that sadness can be described as feeling ‘miserable’, ‘unhappy’ or simply a bit ‘down’; similarly anger can be expressed as feeling ‘furious’, ‘annoyed’ or simply ‘frustrated’ and fear can be experienced as feeling ‘terrified’, ‘frightened’ or a bit ‘worried’.
Children can be helped to understand that grief is made up of a lot of different feelings and behaviours. Young people’s limited experience and understanding of grief means there are a lot of misconceptions about what is ‘normal’. Experiencing a range of strong emotions can make children fear that they are ‘losing it’ or ‘breaking down’ and create self-criticism about their ability to control their feelings. Knowing that their feelings are normal can help them respond in a more positive way. Discuss things that can help in the short term (such as a hug, punching a pillow, or going for a run) and in the longer term (such as making plans with friends, seeking help from someone outside of the family).
There can be a tendency for children to compare themselves negatively to other people - particularly others in their family who may be experiencing and showing their grief in a different way. Children can be helped to understand that everyone grieves in their own way, and supported to have more realistic expectations of themselves. In order to be kind to themselves they need to understand that everyone's grief is unique and that however they feel is ok.
With the best of intentions, when trying to be supportive to bereaved children, other people might say things like “Stay strong”, or “Be brave” or “You’ll get over this”. Hearing such statements can create unhelpful beliefs in children about how they think they should be coping or behaving and these can develop into self-criticism. Children and young people need to be helped to let go of such unhelpful beliefs which create unrealistic expectations and can become a burden.
The idea of stages of grief and timelines for grieving can be unhelpful too. People might suggest ‘moving on’ after a period of mourning, and children can often get the idea that they should get over their feelings. Everyone grieves in their own time and allowing children to grieve at their pace can be very helpful.
Basic needs can be overlooked when you are grieving. As well as developing a more compassionate mind it is important to encourage children to look after themselves physically and find ways to be kind to their bodies. Common sense tells us that when our basic needs are met we are better able to deal with things physically and emotionally. You can help by teaching your children some simple breathing exercises (see our previous blog on dealing with difficult emotions), encouraging heathy eating, making sure they get enough sleep and regular exercise. Being kind to your body can be a positive way to gain a sense of control at a time when so much else can seem out of their control.
To help children develop their self-compassion the following books may be helpful:
For younger children: Listening with My Heart: A story of kindness and self-compassion (2017) by Gabi Garcia
For older children: The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens: Mindfulness and Compassion Skills to Overcome Self-Criticism and Embrace Who You Are (2018) by Karen Bluth and Kristin Neff