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Understanding Grief

These articles will help you understand the grief you may be feeling and how you can cope when someone you care about dies.


10 Facts about Grief and Grieving



One reason that we often find grief such a difficult challenge is that we have never learned what to expect. The following facts will help you understand some crucial truths about grief and grieving and how we can work through the process to find healing.

    1.  Grief is normal.

Grief is not a disease. It is the normal, human response to a significant loss.  People may encourage you to “be strong” or “not to cry”.  But how sad it would be if someone we cared about died and we didn’t cry or we carried on as if nothing had happened.  I’d like to think that someone will miss me enough to shed a tear after I’m gone.  Wouldn’t you?  When you lose someone special from your life you are going to grieve.  Our grief is saying that we miss the person and that we’re struggling to adjust to a life without that special relationship.  Admittedly, saying that grief is NORMAL does not minimize it’s DIFFICULTY.  It may be one of the most challenging experiences of your life.  But you are not crazy, or weak, or “not handling things”.  You are experiencing grief and after a significant loss that is a normal response. 

     2.  The worst kind of grief is YOURS

A loss is a very personal matter.  Your loss seems like the worst possible thing that could have happened to you.  Sometimes people ask if it is more difficult to lose a spouse than to lose a child.  Others question if it is worse to lose someone after a long lingering illness or if they die suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack or in an accident.  While these circumstances make each loss different, they are not important to you right now.  The worst kind of loss is yours.  When you lose a significant person from your life, whatever the relationship, it hurts and nothing takes away from your right to feel the loss and grief the absence of that person from your life. 

    3.  The way out of grief is through it.

Grief is painful.  Loss is one of the most difficult human experiences.  There is no easy way around it.  We may try to avoid the pain.  We may attempt to get over it as quickly as possible.  But most often it simply does not work that way.  Helen Keller said “The only

way to get to the other side is to go through the door”.  We need to find the courage to go through this experience of grief.  Learning this is a major key to recovery. 

    4.  Your grief is intimately connected to the relationship

Every relationship holds a special and unique significance to us.  To fully interpret our grief response we need to understand what the relationship brought to my life and therefore what has been lost from my life.  We may grieve the loss of a parent differently from the loss of a friend.  Each made a different contribution to our lives.  What we have lost is not the same and so we grieve differently.  Two individuals, both experiencing the loss of a spouse, may grieve quite differently because of the differing circumstances (the duration, level of happiness etc) of the relationship. 

    5.  Grief is hard work

A grief response is often referred to as “Grief-work”.  It requires more energy to work through than most people expect.  It takes a toll on us physically and emotionally.  This is why we often feel so fatigued after a loss or why we may feel very apathetic towards people and events.  The problem is often compounded by people’s expectations of us to be strong or pull ourselves together or to get on with life. 

    6.  Your grief will take longer than most people think

How long will grief last?  It is finished when it is finished.  The first few months may be particularly intense.  The first year is difficult: especially the first Christmas or Hanukkah, the first birthday, anniversary, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, “a year ago today day” and many other times that remind us of our loss.  All are difficult days and we need to anticipate them, know they are normal and be compassionate with ourselves.    Some     writers describe  the  second year of grief as the lonely year when the realization of the life without the deceased becomes even more of a reality.  Take your time.  As John Donne says “He who has no time to mourn, has no time to mend.”  Grief always takes longer than people expect. 

     7.  Grief is unpredictable

You may experience a wide variety of feelings and reactions, not just those generally associated with grief, like sadness, crying, depression etc.  Some of your responses may seem quite uncharacteristic.   “This isn’t like me”, you may think.  Grief is unpredictable.  We cannot present it in a neat predictable package.  Just when you think you have it figured out something comes along to surprise us.  In an unexpected moment, suddenly, without warning you find yourself missing the person again.  In fact the one predictable thing about grief is that it is unpredictable.

     8.  There may be “Secondary losses” to deal with.

The death of any individual, difficult as that may be by itself, may also precipitate many other changes in your life.  For some it may mean the loss of financial security, a home, or even their independence.  For some it may mean the loss of a role: eg the role of being a parent to a child who dies.  For others it may be the loss of our hopes and dreams of “living happily ever after” or enjoying retirement together, or having dad walk me down the aisle.  There may be many losses - environment, status, alteration of relationships - because of the death.  Each one has it’s own impact and each loss needs to be mourned.

    9.  Grief comes and goes

We have said that grief is not a disease.  If you have a sore throat, it is painful for a few days, then the pain eases off and gradually disappears.  Grief does not work that way, however. Our healing process is different from a sickness model.   Sometimes, at first, we do not feel the pain of grief because we are in shock and numb.  Often the pain is more intense some months after the event.  Even then grief is not unlike a roller coaster.  One day we feel pretty good,

the next we find ourselves in the depths of despair.  Just when we think we are getting over it we may experience another devastating setback.  This can be discouraging to those who do not know what is happening.   Most have not learned that grief comes and goes and takes much longer than most people expect.  We need to realize that this is the way grief works itself out and trust that the process, difficult as it is, is helping us work towards reconciliation. 

    10.  Effective grief work is not done alone

Society has unrealistic expectations about mourning and often responds inappropriately.  Most people do not understand what is normal in grief, expecting us to get over it quickly and expressing these expectations in a way that seems less than sensitive.   Many people mistakenly believe that grief is so personal we want to keep it to ourselves.  People mean well, but they are not being helpful.  Sometimes when people are using cliches or expressing unrealistic expectations we feel like shutting ourselves away.  Often they feel uncomfortable with our grief and so, shortly after the funeral is over, the person or the loss is not mentioned.  There sometimes seems to be a conspiracy of silence.  People are afraid to say or do the wrong thing so they say and do nothing which is possibly the worst thing.  Grieving people need to talk.  Not everyone will be willing or even able to respond to you.  In fairness, not everyone can.  Accept that and try to find a support group or a counsellor who can help.  Or talk to someone who has been through a similar experience.  I believe in the power of shared experiences, and often others who have been through the deep places can be a real help.  Grief is about coping with the loss of a relationship and often in a helping relationship, relief can be found.


The Loss of a Spouse


A 50/50 chance, to any gambler, is a pretty good bet. But did you ever stop to think that if you are in a significant relationship, there is a 50/50 chance that you will eventually grieve the loss of your partner.

Listen to some of the stories of people who experienced the loss of a spouse.

“I would go to work and it would seem that everything was the same as it had always been. But then I would come home. WOW! Just walking into that empty house. Nobody to say hello or ask me how I got on that day. No delicious aroma of supper in the oven. I had to make my own meal … when I felt like it … and most of the time I didn’t … because I was missing what I had lost … not just my wife, but also the person who used to look after me. That was when it hit me hardest.”  Michael

“The days that followed his death were both utterly full and completely empty … full of activity yet empty of life. Much of the time I sleep walked through the things I had to do, so numb that I was often completely unaware of what was going on around me. I felt like Pinocchio must have felt inside of the whale … cut off from everything that I thought was my life. Then an event or a few spoken words would bring me out of my darkness, only to find myself standing alone and confused on some strange and unfamiliar shore, full of feelings and memories, but also feeling utterly lost.”   Robyn

“She was not only my wife. She was also the one who would tell me if my socks matched; if my tie was straight, or if my hair was combed. She was able to tell me with one look if I was talking too much or saying something stupid. She was the one who would remember all the birthdays and special occasions, and all I had to do was sign cards. She was good at all the things I am not good at. So she complemented me and made me more whole. God, I miss her so much. I feel like part of me is missing.”  Joe

A common theme among people who have lost their spouse is the debilitating effects of feeling entirely alone and incomplete. The sense of feeling like you have lost an essential part of yourself is both painful and disconcerting. The world suddenly looks like a different place, often odd and distanced. You are not sure how to cope with life in general, and sometimes you may even wonder if you even want to try.

One 68 year old widow said, “There is no use trying because you can’t get anywhere anyway. I’m so tired all the time. Everything is too much effort.”

Some of the most common feelings and concerns after the loss of a spouse are reflected in the following statements:

          I felt like I had lost my best friend

          I am angry.

          I feel guilty that I didn’t do enough for him/her.

          I am afraid.

          I worry about lots of things, especially money.

          Suddenly I feel very old.

          I feel sick all the time.

          I think about my own death more frequently.

          I seem to be going through an identity crisis.

          I feel relieved that his suffering is over, then immediately guilty for feeling that way.

Behind each of these statements is a feeling. To fully understand the effects that the loss of that spouse has on that survivor, we need to understand the dynamics behind each of these reactions. The feeling communicates what the person is missing and offers an opportunity to examine the deficiency and find ways to cope with these responses in a way which will ultimately facilitate healing.

First, it is essential to recognize that healing cannot take place unless you EXPRESS what you are feeling and thinking as a result of your loss. That which cannot be put into words, cannot be put to rest. This is where a support group can play such a vital role for grieving people. The opportunity to talk about the person, their life as well as their death, what you miss about them, your feelings of loneliness, anger and many others, and to review the final days of their life and your relationship.

Even when there is some ambivalence about certain aspects of the life shared, it is important to verbalize your anger or your regret about what you lost and never had, or about what could or should have been.

There are some very real consequences from not expressing feelings. Studies clearly show that mortality rates are higher among those who do not articulate their grief, and this may also account for the much higher rate of males who die within a year of their spouse, due to the societal norms that make it more difficult for men to express emotions.

Some survivors ask, “How long should I talk about this? What is normal?” This concern is often motivated by the fact that within a few weeks or months of the death, others seem reluctant to talk about it. After all, their life has returned to normal. But the widow or widower needs to talk about it, because it just feels unbelievable. Life will never be “normal” again (even though a new definition of normality will be established eventually). So some grieving people need to talk for six months, but for others it can be two years or longer. Everyone needs and deserves to follow their own time line.

Over the years, I have noted FOUR situations particularly affecting grieving spouses that require an inordinate amount of personal courage:

          1. Coping with persistent unpleasant memories

          2. Avoiding certain rooms or situations in the house

          3. Experiencing hallucinations where the dead spouse is seen or heard

          4. Dealing with their spouse’s personal effects (clothes, tools, etc.)

Unpleasant memories most often relate to the painful images surrounding the death, and the frustration of not being able to “do” anything to change the outcome. Often through a life-threatening illness, a relationship will peak in one direction or another … a good relationship will tend to get better, a poor relationship will tend to get worse … although there are glorious exceptions. This intensity of the relationship prior to the death magnifies the loss, either by the person missing all the things done and shared through the illness, or by feelings of regret that they did not do enough. Often the inability of the survivor to “let go” of the image of the person in the present is connected to one or other of these factors.

If the person is avoiding sleeping in their own bed, or steering clear of certain areas of the house, this behavior should not be considered unusual or pathological. They are merely protecting themselves from stress. There is a reason for every behavior and perhaps that location is a too painful reminder of the death, or expresses a concern as to “how will I manage”.

Hallucinations (or however we choose to define these experiences) have a wide range of “explanations”. Is it a “visitation of the person’s spirit”, or is it a “product of sensory recall”. I try not to attempt to explain what it may or may not be, but rather to ask how the survivor felt after the experience. And almost always, the person feels reassured, relieved, comforted. If that is the effect, it hardly matters whether it is a dream, a hallucination or a visitation, and to argue that seems to me to miss the point.

Dealing with a spouse’s personal effects is something many survivors procrastinate over. Sometimes this has to do with an understandably low physical energy and emotional stamina. Because these are “special things” you may not know who to give them to or what to do with them. That is OK.

Do nothing until you are SURE that you feel comfortable with what will happen, even if that takes several months or longer. But when you do decide, ask a friend or family member to assist, or even just to be there and talk to you while you do it. Maybe there will be things that you simply do not want to discard or give away so keep them. Remember, it doesn’t hurt anyone or anything to leave your spouse’s things right where they are. Don’t allow anyone to force you into dealing with things until you are ready, sure and comfortable.

So far we have looked at some of the unique challenges surrounding the loss of a spouse.

Now we turn to examine how the surviving individual must convert the mourning process into a nurturing process as they seek to rebuild and reorganize a life where they feel like a half of them is missing.

I believe that an often overlooked aspect of losing a spouse is the change in identity the survivor experiences. We tend to define ourselves by our relationships, our work, our activities and involvements. Many couples define themselves as just that … a couple. It is not ME, it is WE. Admittedly the degree of change will be determined by the complexity of therelationship. But we really cannot understand what any person has lost until we understand the relationship that was shared and is now lost. What is missing from that relationship is really what the person is grieving. And, obviously, every single relationship is unique, with different dynamics and interaction.

So it is reasonable to say that the more dependency the person had on their spouse and the role as husband or wife, the greater the void now that the role is no longer there.

In other words, the surviving spouse not only grieves the person who has died, they also grieve the role that is lost. They suddenly find themselves cast into the role of being a “widow” or a “widower”, a role they neither relish nor desire. The question becomes, “Who am I now?” I still feel like the same person, but my roles in the family, community have changed. This, by the way is often why a grieving spouse will find comfort in getting back to work, because at least THERE, their role remains somewhat “constant” in that familiar context.

Listen to the comments of one widow:

“For almost a year after Jim’s death, I thought of myself as only his husband. I had invested my whole self in him.

I had to think, NO, I didn’t give him all I had, I LOANED it to him. Now I needed to reclaim it, take it back, because I needed it for myself.”

Of course, reclaiming ones self is only possible when you know who your “self” IS. Before you are able to reclaim, you have to identify and redefine, “Who am I NOW” in the light of my loss. The W of WE has to become the M of ME … but turning a W to an M means turning everything upside down, and that is exactly what the widowed person may feel.

So how can a grieving widow or widower redefine themselves? I think it is inextricably linked to interests and experiences. People who get involved, whether in necessary tasks like looking after children, family or work, or by involvements in the community, groups, activities, find that these things increase self esteem and energy as they enhance the person’s identity.

But let’s take a walk on the wild side. Although it is grossly unfair, the widower is often viewed as more “socially acceptable” than the widow. Because the percentage of widows greatly exceeds that of widowers, males are regarded as “eligible” whereas females are regarded as a “threat”. Accordingly, hostesses more frequently extend social invitations to males than to females, so a widow’s social life may not be as jam-packed.

On the other hand, because many men rely on their wives to arrange social activities, after her death it may be difficult to go out without her, to develop social skills, or to put forth the effort that he will need to enjoy the pleasure of other people’s company. Again, social clubs or support groups can provide a good bridge to help the person develop skills, or at least feel more comfortable in such situations. Michael, almost a year after his wife died, said:

“I think the difference between a male’s grief and that of a female is a cultural thing. Men are not as social as women. I mean I have friends, but when we sit down for a drink or something we talk about business or sports or activities. Men aren’t really taught to relate their feelings, or emotions, and certainly not their vulnerabilities. So when my wife died, my friends didn’t know what to say, as if they were afraid to ask me how I was feeling.”

Physical health is another area that concerns many people. Suppressed emotions can contribute to physiological symptoms, which can have serious consequences. Health doesn’t just happen! It involves exercise, good nutrition, avoiding excessive intake of caffeine, alcohol or drugs. Some survivors live on coffee or snack foods and rarely eat a balanced meal.

“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was eat. Everyone kept urging me to “eat something” so if someone was there or watching me, I would eat something to please them. But when I was alone, I ate nothing. In the first month after my husband’s death, I lost 20 pounds. It wasn’t till I started walking daily with my neighbour that my normal appetite returned.”

Insomnia is one of the major symptoms resulting from conjugal bereavement. This can be aided by what we do and what we consume in the hours before going to bed. But many males experience other physical symptoms. Again Michael brings an important insight:

“I’ve noticed some changes in my health. Particularly in my stomach … pains, indigestion, and other symptoms I won’t mention in polite company. My doctor put me through tests, which I think was a good thing to do, but he indicated that often men experience physiological reactions to the emotional stress of grief. That doesn’t minimize their importance. Maybe it’s easier for us to say “I have a pain in my stomach” than it is to say, “I have an ache in my heart.” But whatever it is, it is important to pay attention to the message.”

It may seem strange, but several people have reported to me how changing their physical environment has helped their emotional state. We should all from time to time look around our environment … at home, at work. Many times that can reflect our emotional state. A cluttered, untidy or dismal environment can often reflect a state of mind. But the opposite is also true.

Change usually happens from the inside out rather than the other way. The more you do to enhance your environment, making it cheerful and pleasant, the more your emotional health will be positively influenced.

While everyone is different, I found after my own wife died, and I was left to raise my two young sons, that I had to carefully arrange the surroundings in my home in order to better cope. I put lots of colorful and happy things in the kitchen, because that was where I had my biggest struggles after her death. I put positive, inspiring posters and items in the bedroom, because that was where I felt most lonely. I had ONE room where I had pictures and artifacts of our life together, and when I wanted to think about her, that is where I would go. When I left that room, I closed the door and focused on all the tasks I had to get on with.

Add colour, brighten the place, tidy up a space for yourself, buy a new chair … the ways to make your daily living more pleasant are innumerable and the positive impact on your emotional well being will be tangible.

There is of course no definite point at which the grieving process is complete. Can we ever say, “I have completely healed from the loss of my spouse”? Who knows!

But as we redefine ourselves; as we relinquish old roles and establish new ones; as we develop increasing confidence in our social outlets that satisfy personal needs and coincide with our interests; as we become more able to

talk about our loss with relative ease; as we become able to be involved in an activity without being plagued by painful memories and images, as we find ourselves more able to reach out to others, and not be afraid to have fun and even to laugh again; you will be reassured that healing is being reaffirmed.

But it does take time. As one lady put it:

“A year was a big event for me. But once I got through that, I felt like I didn’t have to look back. Now I could look forward to see what I could do with what I had left. So I asked myself “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I want to do something significant but I’m not exactly sure what just yet. For the first time in my life I can do whatever I want and I plan to make the most of it.”

And why not?

How to Help Someone who is Grieving


I’d love to help but I just don’t know what to say or what I should do.  I am sure many of us can identify with such sentiments.  We hear that a friend or a neighbour has had a loss.  Our hearts immediately go out to them and we long to be of some comfort or assistance but we just don’t know what to do or what to say.  Often because we are afraid or unable to raise the subject we may say nothing.  To the grieving person it may seem as if there is little understanding or support.

Here are eight practical suggestions as to how we can help in a positive and constructive way people who have a loss and support them in their time of need.

1)      Be there.

Our initial reaction is often “What can I do?” and it is a wonderful one.  Most of us want to do something to help take away the pain of loss.   People will offer all kinds of practical help such as bringing in food, looking after children and many other examples.  Yet often what is needed is for people to be not just to do.  As helpers we should take the initiative and make contact.  Remember the griever is in shock and isn’t functioning very well.  They may not be able to respond to your sincere offers to “Let me know if there’s anything I can do?”  They may not know what they need.  The first thing is to reach out, establish contact and be there.  Don’t worry about what you’re going to say or do.  It may come as a surprise but I actually remember very little of what was said to me at the funeral home.  What I do remember is that certain people were there and their presence made all the difference.  Just be yourself.  The gift of presence is most important to people in grief.

2)      Please listen.

One of the healthy things in the days before a funeral is the opportunity for people to talk about the dead person and the events surrounding the death.  Unfortunately that process often ends shortly after the funeral service.  Research has shown that the most significant factor in the failure of grief resolution is the absence or inappropriateness of social support.  Put simply people need to talk … which means others need to listen.  In fact it is better to say people need to talk and talk and have repeated opportunities to review and relive the person’s life and death.  You may find they repeat the same story over and over.  Encourage this.  Difficult as it may be for the listener because each reliving of these events is another strand of the chord that is cut.  Care enough to find out about the person’s grief.  Give them permission to talk with questions like: Can you tell me a little about the death?  What happened?  Tell me about him/her.  How did you meet?  What was he/she like?  What has been happening since the death?  How have you found things?  How are you feeling?  What are some of the struggles or challenges?   Know when to close your mouth and when to open your ears.  Simple listening skills such as maintaining eye contact, leaning forward and nodding your head can encourage the griever to open up.  The unspoken messages “You’re important and what you are saying is important, and I want to hear everything you’re telling me.”

3)      Interpret “Normal” Behavior.

It is important to understand what grief is and how it manifests itself.  Only then will we know what is normal.  Grief is an emotional response to a significant loss.  It manifests itself in many different ways, in greater or lesser degrees and in various combinations. In simple terms, grief is unpredictable. This is what makes normality so difficult to define or neatly package. What is normal? Why can two different people react to grief in completely different ways and both be considered normal?  Our grief response is a unique blending of numerous emotions. Some of these include shock, disbelief, numbness, crying, confusion, anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, loneliness, despair, sadness, helplessness, frustration, irritability, resentment, fatigue, sleep disruptions, physical symptoms, and lowered self‑esteem. All these emotions are normal. People in grief, not understanding this emotional explosion they may be experiencing often think they are going crazy. They aren’t! They are normal. They may need some help to work through all their feelings, but that’s OK. You may not be a doctor or a psychologist, but if you can help people to see they are normal in their feelings of grief, you will bring the best medicine. By the way there are other messages in this series that will help you understand the grief process more fully.

4)      Legitimize Grief Feelings:

I try never to say “I know how you feel” to anyone, because I don’t. How can I know how they feel. All I know is how I felt when grief touched my life. People say these words with good intentions, but the grieving person often does not appreciate them. To say I know how a person feels somehow minimizes their experience. The loss is unique to the griever. The feelings of grief are unique, influenced by many factors around the relationship, and the circumstances. Sure, I lost my wife, and I remember how that felt…but someone else may be feeling something quite different, and we need to validate that. We need to let the person know it is OK to grieve. Grief is confusing to people for many reasons. It manifests itself in some seemingly unusual and uncharacteristic behaviours. The messages people sometimes get is that they should “be strong” . They may be looking for permission to grieve. They are asking us in hidden ways if it is safe to express to us what they are REALLY feeling. To tell a person NOT to cry when tears fill the eyes is to deny permission to grieve. To say that they must be strong, or that life must go on, or even to quickly change the subject to something more cheerful, gives the message that the grief and the feelings are not acceptable to us. Maybe we are simply saying we can’t handle it, which is fair enough. But if we do want to be a support, we need to assure them that we don’t mind if they cry, or rant and rave, or show anger, or display any of the emotions associated with grief. Let people know that you accept them as they are in this time…that you accept their weakness and vulnerability…that you are not trying to “fix” them or indicating they should be doing better. There is often a critical moment between friends when the voice cracks, the mouth quivers, and tears come to the eyes. In that moment, Say little or nothing, but reach out, touch the person, perhaps by a gentle hand on the arm, and let them know that it is OK to let it go and express the grief that is being felt.

5)      Tolerate Angry Responses:

Be prepared for the fact that you may be the focus of some angry reactions or outbursts. It is not necessarily a reflection on you or the things you are attempting to do. Don’t get angry in return or give up on the person when this happens. The problem with anger is that it doesn’t always get focused in the right direction. Grievers may be angry with doctors, ministers, funeral directors, friends…in fact almost anyone. And they are angry for one simple reason. We cannot give them what they want the most. Namely the return of the person they have lost. Something has happened that cannot be changed, much as we would like to. The feelings of helplessness around such a situation lead people to be angry. They are angry because they have been left. But where do they focus that anger. On whoever happens to be in the line of fire when the frustration overflows. We have to be clear here. The person is not angry at us, hard as it may be to be objective. We have to be realistic about the help we can offer. We cannot take the pain away from the person. Despite our best efforts, we cannot rectify the situation to their satisfaction. That does not mean we can do nothing…it just means we have to be realistic.

6)      Give the Griever Hope:

While not minimizing the pain and difficulty of grief, we need to give the griever hope. Hope that someday the pain will subside. Hope that life will have meaning again. Hope that God has a purpose in all this, even though we may not see it right now. Hope that someday life will make sense again. Such a feeling of hope will bring comfort, the realization that things will get better, and that they will find the grace and the strength to carry on.  This is why support groups can be so helpful. They show people whose loss is recent that others have survived the anguish and the agony, and are finding new meanings for their life. While the newly bereaved may not feel it at the time, seeing that there is a possibility of recovery is a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. Giving the mourner hope involves constantly reassuring them that as long as they work at it with courage, the pain will subside and life will go on. It may be a reminder that strength is often made perfect in weakness. But the confidence we place in the person that they will make it will give them courage and confidence in times when self doubts assail.

Always remember that Grief Takes Time.  Not everyone goes through the same process, and none at the identical pace. More often than not, grief takes much more time than society has realized or allowed. We have often forced unrealistic expectations on people who have had a loss. We expect them to be “over it in a relatively short time. While it is commonly accepted that the intense reactions of grief will subside within six to twelve months, it is also widely acknowledged that some things may take years to be resolved. It is up to the grieving person to set the pace for their own journey. We of their friends and family can only walk with them on that journey. We can’t fix people or try to make their decisions for them, or try to set the pace for their journey. But we can be with them. We can walk alongside and let them know they are not alone. They have a friend, and they will be thankful for that and for us. We will have made a difference in someone’s life.

And, after all that is the greatest reward.

Helping Children  Cope with Grief

It is important to note that children have many questions about death, and these are usually different than the ones that occur to adults. Children’s questions deserve simple, straight forward answers. The first task of a grieving child is to make sense of the factual information about how the loss occurred. A caregiver’s direct, concrete explanation of the facts surrounding the death will help the children begin to come to terms with what has happened. They may ask to hear the facts a number of times. They may also want to share the story with many others … friends, teachers, strangers … to try to comprehend the unimaginable that has happened.

  • Children’s perception of loss and their grief has to be understood according to their developmental levels. Death, or indeed any loss, means different things to children of different ages. Enquire and try to figure out what this loss mean to this child at this particular time in life. What they feel they have lost will be a determinate of what they are missing, and what needs to be.
  • Dispel any fears the child may have. Children are often afraid that someone else in the family, or they themselves will die also. They need to have reassurance that these fears are unfounded. Every child is afraid of being abandoned, so if one parent has died, the remaining parent can assure the child that he/she expects to live a long time, and will take care of all the child’s needs.
  • Children need to teach adults about their grief. Every child and every response is unique. Rather than assuming that we know what the child is feeling, we must allow the children to be our teachers. As children share their grief with others they trust, they tell us what they are feeling and experiencing. As adults communicate respect, acceptance, warmth and understanding, the child will sense that they are being taken seriously and be more open to the stabilizing presence of that individual as they reach out with meaningful support.
  • Children express themselves in a variety of ways after a loss. Some of the most widely recognized include: an apparent lack of feelings; acting out behavior, due to feelings of insecurity and abandonment and often expressed by behaviors which provoke punishment, for children would rather be punished than feel ignored; regressive behavior; fear; guilt and self-blame; “Big Man” or “Big Woman” syndrome, (often encouraged by those who with good yet unwise intentions tell a 10 year old that he has to be the “man of the family”); disorganization and panic; loss and loneliness; explosive emotions.
  • Simple ceremonies such as lighting a candle next to a photograph; placing a letter, picture or special memento in a casket; or releasing a helium balloon with a message attached for the person who died, can be effective rituals of farewell. Children can be wonderfully creative with these kinds of meaningful, symbolic ideas.
  • Speak in simple language: Ask the child what he/she thinks, knows and feels, and respond specifically to these concerns. Do not give excessive detail, and make sure you check how the child is putting the information all together.
  • Be honest. Avoid half truths. Never tell a child something he/she will later have to unlearn. Don’t avoid the word death, because sometimes the alternatives (asleep, gone away, in a better place, etc.) create worse difficulty in a child’s mind.
  • Be open about the situation: When my wife died, my boys were 9 and 7 years of age. As much as I might have wanted to, there was no avoiding the questions that arose. “Why did Mommy die?” “Where is she now?” “What will we do if you die too?” I tried to answer the questions they asked simply and honestly, without giving too complicated responses. They discerned that I was making them a part of it all, and was being open about everything and accepted that.
  • Initiate the conversation: Children may not ask questions because they are not sure if they will upset we adults. They may not know what to ask, or be able to put their uncertainties into words. They know that something unusual is happening, and are scared by it. Instead of asking questions, they may turn to whining or other negative behaviors, which add to your emotional stress. In response, rather than helping them cope, adults may get upset or angry and this adds to the reluctance to talk. Try to be sensitive to opportunities to ask children how they feel. We might ask, “You’ve probably been wondering about …. ”, and pose the question that the children may be asking.
  • Sometimes our concern for the children can mask a deep need to resolve our own adult grief issues. Sometimes it is easier and more socially acceptable to say, “I am concerned about the children,” than it is to say, “I’m having a hard time dealing with this myself.” So be careful not to transfer your own fears and anxieties on to the children.
  • Often a child may benefit from a support program. Talk to your doctor, spiritual leader or other community resource people to see what programs are available for your children.
  • Above all, let the child know that these feelings of grief are natural and a necessary part of the grieving process and that their grief will pass. Assure them they are not alone, and that others, including you yourself, feel sad as well. Assure the child, however, that these feelings will pass with time, and that life will return to normal.

A few practical guidelines:

  • When describing the death of a loved one, use simple direct language.
  • Be honest. Never teach a child something they will later have to unlearn.
  • Allow children to express all their emotions
  • Listen to children, don’t just talk to them
  • Don’t expect the child to react immediately. Be patient and available
  • Understand your own adult feelings about death and grief, for until we have come to terms with it for ourselves, it will be difficult to convey a positive attitude to children.

An important influence on children is watching how adults are responding. Caring adults can help guide children through this difficult time and make it a valuable part of personal growth and development. When you support children through these difficult life transitions, they will know without a doubt they are not alone. There is no greater gift we can give our children.

Tony Clarke Funeral Directors 29 Railway Terrace Sunderland SR4 0PY
Tony Clarke Funeral Directors 255 Southwick Road Sunderland SR5 2AB

29 Railway Terrace,

South Hylton,  Sunderland  SR4 0PY


255 Southwick Road,

Southwick, Sunderland  SR5 2AB



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