Following the death of a loved one, survivors don’t recover, they cope. Healing will come eventually, but in the meantime it’s a matter of finding a way to get through each day. Coping is about managing the pain; putting one foot in front of the other and carrying on as best you can. This chapter will outline ways to help your kids better cope with loss.
The divergent ways people cope with grief
Each person copes with grief a little bit differently, which can make this already difficult situation even harder to manage. One person may try to cope by avoiding the issue altogether, whereas others need engagement and want to talk about it all the time. Some may become needy and clingy, wanting extra love and attention, while others become more solitary and just want to be left alone. Some may cope through defense mechanisms, poking fun a the loss or trying to minimize its significance, whereas others react by making everything about this person sacrosanct and elevating them to the status of an angel.
These divergent ways of coping with loss all too frequently give rise to conflict within the home. One family member may want to set up a shrine or memorial to this person in the house, whereas this is another’s version of torture. The child who wants to remember and constantly talk about their loved one can become quite angry with the father who wants to avoid the topic altogether. Or the sibling who copes by pretending not to care can infuriate the sibling who is reeling from this loss and doesn’t understand that their brother or sister cares just as much as they do, and is merely trying to mask the pain.
The trajectories people take in coping with grief can also vary from one person to another. Some may feel the full impact of this loss immediately, crying constantly and showing their grief, whereas others will be in a state of shock, numb and not feeling much of anything at all. Which means that one person may be coming into the full force of their grief just as another family member is starting to come out of it. Some people may cope by trying to avoid the issue at first, then will progressively start to confront the loss as thinking about it becomes a bit more tolerable. Children have also been known to try and protect their surviving parent, which means sacrificing their own needs and burying their grief so as to avoid causing a problem. The bottom line: grief is complicated and unique to every person, and people (big or small) suffering through the exact same loss can have very different ways of coping with it.
Even when surviving family members aren’t busy rubbing each other the wrong way, the death creates an unmistakable void in the home, and the sheer intensity of the emotions felt can make for an awkward atmosphere. Hope Edelman, who as a teen lost her mother to cancer, says “silence and awkwardness filled the kitchen, which had once been the site of lively conversations about everyone’s day. My sister, brother, and I became afraid to even mention our mother, because one of us might start to cry, and if one person started, others might too, and there is little in this life more terrifying than watching your father start weeping into his macaroni and cheese.” (Canfield et al., 2000, p. 219)
Do your best to be sensitive to each child’s coping strategy, and respond according to what they need, not what you need.
If there’s friction in the family over coping styles, be open and talk about this. Explain why some people may need to remember, while others just want to avoid the situation and forget. Children feel a whole lot better when they understand the nature of the conflict. In the absence of such dialogue, they’re liable to think the other person either… A) Just doesn’t care about the person who died, or B) Is intentionally trying to annoy or upset them. Talk to each other, and try to work out a compromise that accommodates everyone.
It’s key to try to maintain balance. A lot of people, including many grief psychologists, consider it completely unhelpful to set up a memorial in the house, since its hard to let go and move on with such a constant reminder. That said, many people need to reminisce, reflect, and memorialize this person as part of the grieving process. So what some people consider unhelpful and pathological others find comforting. Children, especially, are worried about this person being forgotten – by them or by others. Use your best judgment to try to balance these competing interests: the need to move on versus the need to reminisce and recognize this person as an important presence in your life. The distinction between healthy grief versus unhealthy pathology is subtle and often a matter of degree, not of substance.
- More information on helping children cope with grief and loss can be found in our grief & Bereavement eBook. It’s just $7.99, and all proceeds go to help kids in need.