- Katie Lear is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and mother of a toddler.
- She has written a book about helping children through grief.
- This is Lear’s story, as told to Kelly Birch.
This tell-all article is based on a conversation with Katie Lear. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was in middle school, my friend’s mother died unexpectedly. I called her and did my best. “I heard your mother is not well,” I told her. “You can say that,” my friend countered.
Now that I’m a counselor, I can see that I’ve internalized our society’s taboos about death and grief. I think “dying” and “dead” are bad words – as if saying they would suddenly highlight my friend’s huge loss. I’m worried I screwed up the whole thing.
After helping hundreds of families through their grief these days, I know there is no way to screw up these conversations. Yes, they can be awkward, contrived and painful. But the only way to really screw them up is to not have them at all.
Give your child the opportunity to talk about grief often
Death and sex are two of the biggest taboos in American culture. We just don’t talk about them enough, and this has permeated our parenting process. But grief is a universal experience. We all grieve at some point, and if we don’t help them through, we’re hurting our children. We also signaled to them that we cannot afford to grieve. I often have kids tell me they haven’t spoken to their parents because their mom or dad isn’t ready.
As with birds and bees, you should give up the idea of a big talk. Instead, talk to your child about grief often. Remember, grief can be triggered not only by death. Children who go through parental divorce, move house, or adoption experience grief.
I often hear parents want scripts for these conversations. Unfortunately, there is not a single correct thing to say. The best thing we can do as parents is to be open to discussions.
I use “Sorrowful Stacks” to get kids talking
When kids come to me for counseling, I turn to play therapy. One of my favorite tools is Sorrows. I use color-coded blocks or blocks with colored stickers. Each sticker represents a hint. Green might be happy memories, purple might be something you don’t understand, and red might be something you miss. When you pull out the blocks, you answer the prompts.
This is a powerful exercise because it allows children to verbalize things that may not be on their minds. And since children and caregivers are alternated, it shows that you are also dealing with your grief. When a child is grieving, parents are almost always grieving.
Children and parents experience different grief
Parenting through grief can be overwhelming. But it’s okay to let your child see your grieving process. They can see you cry or get angry. Just make sure they see you taking care of yourself too.
Remember that children experience grief differently than adults. Their young minds can be overwhelmed with grief, so they just get out there. You might see a child running, laughing and playing with friends and assume they are not sad. But they are likely to fall into this grief later that day. Going in and out of grief is how children cope.
Grief can be debilitating at first, but it should become more bearable over time. If the situation gets worse, it’s time to seek counseling. Not all children experiencing grief need counseling, but I recommend those who experience violence or sudden loss or death of their primary caregiver. Adults often need it to deal with the grief of complex or ambiguous relationships, such as when mourning a miscarriage or the death of an ex.
By talking about grief, we can help each other get through it, one conversation at a time.