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Grief and Complex Learners

Helping Your Child Navigate Loss

Coping with loss is one of the hardest things to do as an adult. But as a child, and a Complex Learner, grief can be confusing, scary, and raise a lot of questions. As a parent, it’s a moment you hope you never have to navigate with your child, but you play a critical role in helping your child navigate loss and heal from tragedy.

After grief counselors from Friends Way and Bradley Children’s Hospital visited The Wolf School, we’ve compiled a few important things to keep in mind when talking with your child and navigating the difficult terrain of grief.

Grief looks different for everyone

There is no guidebook or rules on what grief might look like, especially for children. Some children might have a very emotional reaction while others might take days to process it. Some children might react more so based off of the reactions they are witnessing around them instead of their own feelings.

How your child processes things outside of grief might give you an indication on how they might handle loss. If your child is rarely emotional, they might not grieve in an emotional way. If your child struggles with slow processing, it might take weeks before they bring it up to you again. No matter how your child grieves, there is no “right” way. Don’t try to guide your child to grieve in any particular way, instead, follow their lead and be there to support them however you can.

Grief isn’t a sprint

Just as there’s no guidebook, there is no expiration date on grief. We all process the news of loss and the impact the loss has on our lives in very different ways. Your child might process the news and then ask a very heavy question weeks later. Your child may work through their different stages of grief and come to a place of acceptance only for a big event or a random reminder months later to evoke a big emotional reaction. Grief isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon with no defined end.

Encourage your child to process and work through their emotions however feels right to them. For some, this might be taking a walk in nature alone with their thoughts. Other children might ask the same question over and over again as a means of processing the information. Some children might do best by journaling or drawing. Don’t be nervous if your child’s grief timeline looks different than your own – they are simply processing it the best way they know how.

Model for your children

While your child might not grieve the same way you do, witnessing you handling your grief and emotions in an open, safe, and healthy way can help encourage them to do the same. While keeping in mind their age and what’s appropriate to share, feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings with your child. Even something as simple as “I’m feeling really sad today because I heard a song that reminded me of Grandma” can help your child understand the correlation between sadness and reminders of their lost loved one.

While talking about your feelings might encourage your child to do the same, also talk about how you work through and process those heavy feelings. Does going for a run help clear your head? Does journaling memories of your loved one help you when you’re missing them? Share your own strategies with your child and, when appropriate, encourage them to join you. 

There’s no right answer or script

As a parent, you may feel helpless seeing your child try to grapple with such a mature and heavy thing as the loss of a loved one. It might feel like you don’t know what to do or what to say but the most important thing to remember is that you know your child. You know how to talk to them and you know what information they are capable of processing and what they aren’t.

One of the biggest concerns parents might have when talking with their child is saying the “wrong” thing when asked a question. If your child asks you a surprising question, don’t be afraid to answer a question with a question. Answering their question with “I’m curious to know what made you ask that?” can buy you some time to think about how to answer. And by having your child explain the thoughts behind the question, you can better understand what they are really asking. What feeling or fear is behind that question that needs to be addressed?

Most importantly, remember that when you make your decisions out of love and understanding, chances are it will always be the right thing for your child.

As a parent, you have an important role in helping your child understand loss and process their grief. But you’re also never alone. If you have questions or concerns, reach out to your child’s network of support whether that be a pediatrician, your child’s classroom team, a psychologist, a grief counselor, or another family member or friend.

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