Seattle's Child

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Helping Kids Through Grief and Loss

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Dad Next Door: When the unimaginable happens

You can't fix a child's grief, but you can walk through it with them

The other day, Pippa came home from school with horrible news: The mother of one of her friends had died. We don’t know the cause, only that it was sudden and completely unexpected.

That night at dinner, we were all at a loss for words. We tried to think of things we could do for her friend or their family, but every gesture seemed puny and inconsequential beside the immensity of their loss. It was on a scale that we couldn’t even imagine. 

As parents, the most powerful thing we do in our children’s lives is to show up. We may fret and obsess about what to pack for their lunches, or how much screen time we let them have, but the thing that really matters is that we’re present in their lives, caring for and protecting them, every day. When a child loses that, they momentarily lose everything. They enter a world where nothing can be relied upon — where the ground they walk on and the sky above their heads are no more permanent than the seeds on a dandelion, and at any moment might simply blow away. 

The death of a parent is a cataclysmic event. One study showed that it exposes a child to increased risk of depression and anxiety for at least a decade. And the shock waves spread beyond that child into their entire community, affecting their other caregivers, their relatives, their friends and their schoolmates. In a child’s world, it’s the equivalent of a nuclear explosion. It changes everything. 

In the face of such loss, what are we supposed to do? How can we possibly make a difference? Where do we begin? Our first job is probably to understand how kids grieve.

Children, like adults, are not all cut from the same cloth. Everyone grieves differently. That’s true from child to child, but also in each particular one, from moment to moment, day to day, and over the course of years. Don’t expect them to handle things the way you would, or to stay consistent as they move through their grief. Meet them where they are.

We also have to remember that kids are just kids. They don’t have the vocabulary or experience to process complex, new feelings the way adults might. Much of their grieving will be nonverbal. They’ll go through many shades of emotion, including anger, anxiety, sadness, or just denial. In most cases, they won’t be able to name them these emotions — they’ll just feel them. 

One emotion that children often feel is guilt. In defiance of all logic, they may blame themselves for their parent’s death. Maybe they should have been better behaved. Maybe they should have been more helpful around the house or nicer to their baby sister. Maybe they should have said a magical incantation and avoided stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. It’s important to tell them that none of that matters, and none of this is their fault.

One type of guilt to look out for, as grief recedes, is the guilt of moving on. A child may think that the lifting of their sadness is a betrayal of the lost parent’s memory. That logic can trap a child in their depression, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. 

So, once we understand how kids grieve, what can we do to help them? The first step, I think, is to acknowledge that you can’t fix this. Nothing you or anyone else can do will make this less of a tragedy. Your job isn’t to make it go away, it’s to accompany them through it. 

Likewise, the child can’t fix it for you. If you’re going through your own grief, go ahead and express it. Let the child know that they aren’t alone in their grieving, and that they don’t have to hide it. But don’t ask them (implicitly or explicitly) to help you. That’s not their job. Find an adult to support you — and if necessary, find a professional.

After that, our job is mostly to show up. So often we pull away when others are coping with tragedy, protecting ourselves from our own discomfort in the guise of “giving them space.” Sure, respect their privacy, and let them express themselves in their own time. But don’t isolate them. They need to be held — if not literally, then at least with your attention and presence. 

Remember, there may not be a lot of talking. It’s OK to ask a question or two if you think the time is right, but keep it short, and then just listen. Don’t be afraid of silence. And when the spigot does open up, be prepared for a lot of emotions. Validate them. Make sure the child knows that whatever comes out — anger, sadness, worry, or even joy — is OK to feel and OK to talk about. 

Recently, this unimaginable situation has become all too real and all too common. In the last two years, 140,000 American children have lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19. With the omicron variant, the death toll among young adults climbed higher than ever. It’s no longer an option to sit on the sidelines and make believe this is not happening. We can’t fix it, but we also can’t ignore it. 

About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.