November is Military Family Appreciation Month as well as Child Mental Health Month. It is a good time to remember the loss experienced by the youngest family members, and to share what we’ve learned about how to help them with their pain and grief.
Over the last six years of working at ICFF events, it’s been difficult not to see that children are impacted by the loss of their loved ones. I’ve noticed three trends of questions that parents or kinship caregivers have about their children mourning the loss of a parent. I often get worried questions about the child crying too much, about how to tell them their parent is gone, and concerns that the grief is going on too long.
These impulses, although coming from a good place, delay the healing journey. Consequently, I help families learn to be sad, to use clear language, and to exercise patience. True to ICFF’s mission, this helps smooth the families’ journeys to living a new, healthy normal.
It’s ok to cry. Seeing a child cry pains caregivers, even strangers. Our natural impulse to avoid what’s painful, and to prevent others from feeling pain, tends to push caregivers to cheer up children to prevent that child from crying. However, this delays and extends the grieving process. Further, it reinforces a negative coping mechanism – avoiding sadness. Yes, dealing directly with what makes us sad is painful, but it’s necessary. To normalize the concept, I tell children that it’s ok to cry. “Just like how taking a bath cleans our outsides with water,” I say, “crying does the same thing. It washes out all the icky stuff inside us.”
It’s ok to say the words death or died. Perhaps all of us have had a “pet go to the farm.” Unfortunately, this common description of death stunts our development. Most notably, and like above, this attempt to protect one from feeling sad delays the growth process. In other words, feeling bad is the first step to feeling good. Practically, this means you’re going to need to look the child in the eyes and say the words, “I’m sorry, your father died being a hero.” Recognizing the loss opens the door to being supportive without trying to fix anything (because you can’t fix it) and focused on feelings. At ICFF, we saw one little boy chasing after men in uniform yelling “Daddy, Daddy” because he was still waiting for his dad to return; and we knew that his journey would be harder once he learned that all that time his father was already gone.
It’s ok to revisit the topic. There’s no chronological progression, and children will grieve at different times in further ways as they mature. Even when the child first learns of the death, they may not have any reaction or talk about it for months. Or, in the other extreme, children may revisit the topic irregularly for many months. You can’t control the timetable. The worst thing the caregiver can do is try to pressure the child to move on. In fact, I encourage families to regularly celebrate the life of the deceased. The second worst thing one can do is try to forget the deceased. Always be willing to share a favorite memory when the child is sad. You can say “Let’s look at some old photos” and “Do you remember when he did that thing, and I laughed so hard?”
To summarize, death is a part of life, and our responsibility is to help children through the grieving process. If you can remember to be in the pain momentarily, rather than run from it, then you’re doing better than most caregivers.
Zach Hunsinger, LSW, Esq.
Assistant Director of Veterans Programs
Health & Disability Advocates