The importance of YOU when your child is grieving
Following a terminal diagnosis or death of somebody close to your child, they will react in their own unique way, and therefore have their own individual needs. However, there are certain factors that we know all children need at this time, the most important of which is YOU and your relationship with them.
If you are reading this blog, the likelihood is that you are concerned about the bereavement needs of a child, whether that child is your own, or is a child you teach, coach, or care for. The relationship you have with a grieving child can make all the difference to them.
What we have learned from research into childhood bereavement is that, above and beyond any specialist support, children and young people need an emotionally available adult by their side – somebody they can speak to about their feelings, ask questions of, and who will be alongside them as they grieve.
Much of the work we do at SeeSaw includes advising the adults around bereaved children on what they may need and how best to support them. Dr David Trickey, a renowned paediatric consultant clinical psychologist tells parents that he may work for an hour a week with a child, but there remain 167 hours in that week when a child looks to the adults around them for support. But what is it they are looking for in these relationships?
A safe and stabilizing presence, connection, and regulation
At a time in their lives when the worst is happening or has happened, children need to feel safe. Knowing you are there for them and attuned to their needs is a very powerful feeling. Your relationship alone can have a stabilizing effect on your child’s emotions, and, therefore, their behaviours. Their trust in you will also help if you want to introduce some self-regulation strategies to them.
Information and validation
To be able to manage grief and challenging emotions, children need appropriate knowledge and information about what grief is, how it can affect them, and what can help. We know we cannot fix their grief or prevent them experiencing painful emotions but, what we know is, it helps them when they understand their feelings and when a trusted adult validates these emotions for them.
Communication and involvement
It is very important, when someone close a child is dying or has died, to keep them updated with information suited to their age and stage of development. Involvement in caring for a sick loved one or in the choices around funerals and goodbye rituals, for example, ensures that they do not feel forgotten, left out, or unimportant, all of which can have detrimental effects on a child’s grief
Permission, opportunities, and encouragement to grieve
Modelling our own grief, such as naming rather than hiding our emotions, helps to validate a child’s own feelings and gives them ‘permission’ to grieve in their own way. Through your relationship with a child, you can provide opportunities to talk about their grief whilst also respecting their choice NOT to if that is the case. Children need to feel listened to, heard, and understood and will usually look to those adults closest to them for this – often at times when least expected. Try to be ready for these conversations but promise to return to them if you cannot discuss them at the time they arise.
Warmth, understanding, and reassurance
It is well documented that, as humans, we are soothed by physical touch. The gentle physical contact of cuddles, hand-holding, back-rubbing, foot-stroking, or whatever your child prefers, offers them warmth, connection, and security, which help to soothe and reassure the child when they are feeling overwhelmed
Fun, play, and normality
Grieving children need as much normality in their relationship with you as you can manage. They still need their routines and boundaries but, most especially, they need to be encouraged to continue with their usual activities and to have fun. Their trust in you when you encourage them to do this gives them permission to take time out of grieving in healthy and fulfilling ways.
When parents and carers contact SeeSaw, they are sometimes initially surprised to hear that children do not always need one-to-one support from a practitioner and that their relationship can often be the most powerful factor in supporting their child. There are times when professional support is also needed, but when adults receive the above information at an early stage, and put the advice we provide in place, it strengthens your special bond with your child and is often enough to prevent the need for professional intervention.