The surviving children of the Sandy Hook School shooting have lost beloved friends and teachers and their parents will struggle in the weeks and months ahead to help them process their grief. It is always hard to watch a child suffer through loss, whether of a close relative, sibling, friend or pet.
Lauren Hutchinson, LMFT is a child and family therapist and parenting consultant with a practice in Bellevue, WA. She says the range of symptoms a child may display when they are grieving is quite varied. Kids may want to talk about the source of grief a lot or not at all. They may have bouts of tears, difficulty sleeping and/or nightmares, unusual clinginess to adults, inability to concentrate, and increased irritability or anger.
It’s important to “watch for the clues and be available and fully present to them.” Hutchinson says, “as parents we tend to want to rush in and solve their problems and when kids are grieving we need to simply let them express their emotions. Let them talk and use reflective listening to validate these important feelings.”
Acknowledge their sadness, says Hutchinson and validate their emotions by responding to statements of grief with open-ended questions. “If they say, ‘I miss my friend who died,’ don’t invalidate that emotion by saying, ‘you’ll feel better soon or I know just how you feel.’ Instead, ask something like ‘what does that feel like for you’ or ‘what do you remember about your friend.’ When we validate children’s feelings, we create a sense of safety and comfort for them.”
Hutchinson says to remember that kids, like adults, all grieve differently and to “respect your child’s grieving style and don’t pressure them to respond to their grief in a certain way. Some children will grieve quietly and some will want to talk about what their feelings, and others not.” Grief also comes in cycles for kids, says Hutchinson, as it does for adults, “washing over us like waves.” It is completely normal she says to observe children being completely awash in grief one moment and then relatively happy the next.
It is important to help kids process their grief, says Hutchinson, by “taking action. Rituals can give kids a tangible way for them to act and move through their grief.” Grief rituals can include writing letters, making a craft or gift for someone, creating a memory scrapbook, lighting a candle, making a donation, planting a tree, having a memorial service.
Other resources that may help parents support grieving kids include books. For children ages six to ten; What About Me? When Brothers and Sisters Get Sick by Allan Peterkin, MD, When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and The Saddest Time by Norma Simon, and for kids age ten and older, The Next Place by Warren Hanson, all available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore.
Your local hospice organization can be a resource for connecting grieving kids to counselors. The Portland, Oregon based Dougy Center provides many resources online. You can search for a grief support program near you by clicking here.
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