Contributed by Katie GreerBorn with a desire to support others, Katie often found herself in helper roles throughout childhood. Upon college graduation, her empathy paired perfectly with a passion in physiology, venturing into the medical field. Then, in 2016, tragedy struck when her four-year-old daughter drowned on a family vacation. Years of isolation, sorrow, and anger held her joy captive. Katie battled with grief, hoping to cast it out of her life.

In 2018, she began supportive emotional practices, accepting grief as the natural response to loss. One of the most significant grief shifts Katie experienced was from The Grief Recovery Method. The method aligned with her heart so deeply that she became a Certified Advanced Grief Recovery Specialist. Her mission to support others is clear. Katie encourages her clients to be emotionally honest without judgment. She has since founded the Satellight Project, focusing on grief education. 

His bright blue eyes stared at me with innocence, “Where Sissy?” my two-year-old son’s inquiry echoed in my ears. We had been so busy making funeral arrangements, shuttling him between grandparents and friends’ homes, his routine had been entirely disrupted. His parents seemed different, the house was quiet, many strangers visited at all hours of the day, and he couldn’t process the whereabouts of his core family. It had been two weeks since his sister died.

“Sissy died,” I defeatedly answered. The abrupt statement trickled out of my mouth before I could debate if it was okay to use that word around a young child. He repeated his question over and over throughout the day and into the following months. My answer remained the same, occasionally elaborating with, “and she’s not coming home.”

The word “died” was all I could muster. It was straight to the point. I didn’t know at the time, this was the exact language to use when speaking to a child about death. Being in shock, I didn’t have the energy to go into a heavenly cloud analogy, sleeping with the angels, better place absurdities.

I couldn’t tolerate something sounding graceful when every cell in my body felt it had been brutally destroyed.

Others resorted to that choice language with their children, but I couldn’t tolerate something sounding graceful when every cell in my body felt it had been brutally destroyed. Those parents seemed nervous, and some even put off, by my use of the “D-word.”

Months later, my daughter’s preschool posse would approach me asking about Marissa or telling me stories about themselves, or sharing how much they missed her. Some parents physically pulled their kids away from me or apologized for their child’s candidness.

I tried to explain I wanted to listen, answer their child’s questions, and join them in that uncomfortable space we are taught to avoid, but my request for connection was counterintuitive and seemed foreign to them.

Children are incredibly aware of their surroundings, beginning during infancy. When these young hearts feel their environment shift, they become natural investigators. Societal expectations have not had time to berate their curious attempts to understand why things feel different.

Adults, in general, prefer to minimize questions around hard topics, such as death. Breaking these generational patterns is critical. It fosters genuine relationships that recognize the importance of mitigating isolation after a death. We can start this today with our children.

Over the past six years, I have had the privilege of living with a child after their sibling’s death and witnessing dozens of other children’s grieving experiences. Their routines and expectations were altered. Some of these kids, ages eight to 14, have been able to explore the meaning and permanence of death, while some were taught to not speak of their sadness, fear, or uncertainty and death remains a taboo topic.

A month after Marissa’s death, a mother asked her eight-year-old son how he was doing. He shared, “I don’t like to talk about her because it makes everyone really sad.” This comment gets me every time, how little I knew about children and grief in 2016. I was stupefied alongside his mother when she told me how ill-equipped she felt in talking about grief.

Psychologists are discovering that by age seven, 75% of our behavior patterns, beliefs and habits are formed. These behaviors, beliefs, and habits are learned in our environments, many of which are tried and true – but some are incorrect and harmful.

From this child’s comment, there are two incorrect beliefs taught by our societal norms:

Myth #1 – Feeling sad is bad. The “positive vibes only” movement removes empathy and the human experience’s natural desire: to relate to each other and offer connection.

Myth #2 – We take 100% responsibility for “making” someone feel something. The responsibility of emotions is that of the feeler.

Sitting with grief, listening to other grievers, and educating myself on what is truly helpful, I decided to challenge these myths with parents, teachers, and colleagues.

For example, a grief-informed response to the boy could have sounded like, “It’s difficult to see others feel sad. Death is sad and scary sometimes. Feeling sad or scared isn’t bad, though. Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?” For a younger child, saying fewer words is more impactful, such as, “It’s okay to feel sad. We miss Marissa.”

The “positive vibes only” movement removes empathy and the human experience’s natural desire: to relate to each other and offer connection.

Trust is built when we acknowledge the emotion and validate the child’s perspective, allowing for free expression of emotional honesty. However, safety is also a critical variable and limits emotional honesty.

Maybe it isn’t a death, but a life-changing event, where space for being emotionally honest with a trusted adult is important for the child to express themselves, such as:

  • Moving
  • Parents divorcing
  • Giving away a pet
  • Addition of a new family member
  • Being bullied at school
  • Getting braces
  • Having surgery
  • Parent job change

These events may involve conflicting emotions, such as excitement and anxiousness. Conflicting emotions are often present with life-changing events, allowing them to be considered an event where grief is present. Grief is the natural occurrence of conflicting emotions from a change of routine to the loss of expectations, hopes, and dreams.

Understanding there are areas we, as adults, can improve upon in our communication and education surrounding grief, here are three ways you can begin supporting children in your life today:

Use Concrete Language

This is the action of using words with a clear meaning. Metaphorical phrases or expressions are unhelpful to grieving children and could add fear.

An example of this would be to say, “Mom died,” instead of using the expression, “Mom went to sleep.” Later, a child may develop a fear of sleeping because that’s what they understand their mother is doing and now she has disappeared.

Let the Child Lead

Many children seek ways to be included in conversations, even the tough ones. The adult’s responsibility is to create trust and safety for the child to hope and desire to be included. Once trust and safety are established, approach the hard topic you wish to speak to your child about or let them approach it when they’re ready.

Opening the dialogue and setting the foundation will create the invitation for open conversations in the future. I also encourage parents and teachers to get curious with the child. If you aren’t sure of the answer, refrain from guessing and say, “I don’t know. Should we find out?”

When adults use emotion-based words, it opens the lines of communication for the child. It can help them identify their own emotions, expand their vocabulary, and normalize emotional processing.

Model Emotional Honesty

This can include being mindful of your insecurities about uncomfortable subjects involving grief. It’s okay to cry in front of your child; crying is a natural response to loss. Use emotion-based language rather than intellectual statements. “I’m feeling nervous about attending the funeral. I’m glad to be going, but I’m not sure what to expect,” is more emotionally honest than, “Grandma is not hurting anymore. Her funeral should offer us closure.”

When adults use emotion-based words, it opens the lines of communication for the child. It can help them identify their own emotions, expand their vocabulary, and normalize emotional processing.

I practice each of these with the children in my life, including my son. As he has aged, the story I share with him, about his sister’s death remains the same. The only changes to the story have been expanded details as his ability to understand grows.

The adage, children are resilient I believe, is only partially true. I believe children learn to adapt to their environment; and empathetic, emotionally honest spaces builds into their resiliency. The fact you are here is a courageous step in supporting the children in your life during loss and grieving events. Offer yourself grace. Respect that grief will be a life-long learning project.

Connect with Katie Greer on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

(Visited 489 times, 1 visits today)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *