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Helping Children Deal With Grief And Illness

Listen to the show: Grief and Loss: Healing In a Whole New Way

Grief and Illness is hard for anyone to cope with, and even more difficult for children. Children under 10 years of age process information differently than adults, which means we need to talk with them on their emotional level. Children do not only grieve when someone or something dies, they can grieve over an illness or even a perceived loss (something they see on TV or pain they feel for someone else). Since children are feeling based, rather than adults who are thought based, they tend to act and react depending on how they feel in the moment. When it comes to grief in loved ones, whether it is death or a prolonged illness, remember the 5 main stages of grief that they can and will go through (Kubler-Ross &Kessler):

Denial – “This isn’t really happening”
Anger – “I’m so angry this had to happen to me”
Bargaining – “God, I won’t don’t…or…if you just heal them or bring them back”
Depression – “This really is happening and I don’t think I can deal with it”
Acceptance – “I realize this has happened, I don’t like it, but life goes on and I will survive”

These stages are processed across various lengths of time and in a different order at times. Children even go back and forth between stages often, depending on how intense the grief is for them. Here are some quick tips to help you talk with, and help your child deal with the grief they may be facing:

*Talk less and listen more (what’s important is how they feel about the event, not their knowledge of it)
*Explain things with examples they can relate to (like characters they know, and things they play with)
*Follow up with them regularly (don’t just make it a “one time event”)
*Keep them in the present tense (children tend to take things to the extreme)
*Always be open for questions (they may come back later and ask them)

The key to remember is children need to be heard and understood, not just given a logical explanation for what is happening and why. Give them time to talk, and take the time to notice their feelings. Grief and illness (especially long term illness) is a process, and there is no guaranteed path for how any of us deal with it. Younger children can benefit from “playing out” their feelings with dolls, puppets, or stuffed animals. You can help them by being the voice for their feelings and play. DON’T ask questions, just talk about the play you are observing and the feelings you see them having. Don’t hesitate to consult a professional, watch for signs of regression, notice mood swings, and be proactive at dealing with the issue before it becomes a chronic concern.

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