Coping with loss can strain anyone’s mental health, but children are especially vulnerable. They need to know that grief is nothing to be ashamed of.
Taking care of your family’s mental health is as important as looking after their physical well-being. Learning how to grieve – how to feel the pain and sadness of a great loss fully and find closure – is part of the emotional intelligence we all need to keep us on an even keel, mentally.
Yet all too often, out of embarrassment for ourselves or others, we suppress grief – we pretend to be “fine” so as not to be a bother to anyone, with serious consequences for our mental well-being further down the line.
Even more concerning is the desire of some parents to suppress grief in their children – to expect them to “just get over” a sudden bereavement. Girls are told not to make a fuss; boys are expected to “man up” – none of which is healthy, in the long run.
Family support is for Life!
Prince Harry shone a welcome spotlight on the importance of allowing children to grieve – as well as the need to de-stigmatise mental health issues in general – when he spoke candidly about undergoing therapy 20 years after his mother’s death. As a 12-year-old in the most stiff-upper-lipped family on earth, not being allowed to grieve properly for Princess Diana after she was torn away from them so unexpectedly, he simply shut down his emotions for the next two decades.
It was only in his late 20s, he says, that he realised his growing, unexplained anger was affecting both his work and his relationships. He talked to family and friends, and then a therapist, who helped him understand how unresolved grief over his mom’s loss was at the root of the problem.
When it comes to support when we’re grieving, families are the first item in the Starter Kit – generally, they will all be dealing with the same loss at the same time. For a child, even the death of a beloved pet can be traumatic, especially as it’s usually their first encounter with life’s frailty.
Here are some pointers on how to help your child grieve:
- It is important that you let your child know that it is perfectly natural to be sad – to mourn what they’ve lost, to express their sorrow, and to keep the dead alive in their memories.
- They will learn from your example how families support each other in times of woe. Losing a family member affects everyone in the family, and knowing how to comfort and support your loved ones during bereavement is one of the foundations of a mentally safe, secure social environment.
- Be honest. No matter how young they are, do not hide the truth or make up stories about what happened. Explain that death is a part of life and it is something you have to get through no matter how hard it is.
- It may be difficult at the time but it is very important to keep your usual routine – it will help your child feel grounded, safe and normal. Kids will be worried about how things will change after a loss so by keeping things in routine, you are reassuring them that their life will return to normal.
Feature: Alyn Adams