Dr. Gilda on Grieving

How to Help Your Child Grieve
Dr. Gilda Carle

By some miracle, none of New York City's schoolchildren lost their lives on September 11th. But many of these little impressionable beings witnessed such horrific sights as planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers, people jumping from the buildings, and blood-covered and soot-immersed bodies running to safety. This was no R-rated movie at which kids were sneaking peeks.

It was real life, and the 24-hour news coverage of its aftermath was filled with memorable images of that fateful day. What do we say to our children who we ordinarily try to protect and shield from such horrors? How do we assure them that their tiny lives will continue as usual? Where do we derive the strength if we ourselves are emotionally depleted?

1. Children have a very short sadness span. Since they can't endure sadness for very long, they may cry and then suddenly change the subject. This is the way kids manage their pain. This behavior seems confusing to adults because a grieving child appears to be fine. But be aware that although your child may not be showing it, he is still feeling deep sorrow that requires an outlet for expression. Provide that outlet by setting up safe conversations of reassurance.

KidsPeace, the National Center for Kids Overcoming Crisis, warns adults to listen to their children. Hear your child's concerns and fears, and offer him comfort and reassurance. Under the age of 7, a child's extreme fear is normal. Children of this age can't make sense of the scary world around them, and they need adult interpretation when things don't seem to make sense.

2. A child expresses his fear in many different ways. When one parent dies, he fears the other parent will die, too--and leave him. Even the possibility that a parent might get married again to someone new can become a threat to a child's need for security during this time.
Continue to reassure your child that you will continually be there for him, day and night, through any crisis.

3. Children are selfish. If their mom dies, they are concerned about what would happen to them if dad died, too. Tell your child, "You know, I will be with you for a long, long time. But when I'm not here, you will be with Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Cindy, Uncle Dominick, Renee, and all your friends. They love you very much." Provide the promise of security with a backup plan in the event it is ever needed

4. Review emergency plans with your child. Designate a family meeting place. Instruct your child to be aware of what is around him. Be sure he knows how to reach police. Teach him to be skeptical of unusual behavior, strange packages, or peculiar letters. Show him where you keep emergency supplies like a battery-operated radio, bottled water, spare batteries, and doses of prescription medications. Also keep spare copies of essential documents.

5. Younger children (aged 2, 3, 4) think death is not permanent, but older children can grasp that death is for forever. A parent can gently remind them of when their goldfish died, or their hamster, or their dog. The kids may express their anxiety in different ways. It is not unusual to observe sudden anger, fighting with peers, clinging to adults, nightmares, headaches, back aches, stomach aches, or regressing into bedwetting or thumb-sucking. Children may also fear the dark, they may want to avoid sleeping alone, or they may demonstrate a loss of interest and poor concentration at school, or an increased need for adult attention. Discuss your child's deep feelings and let him feel safe to express them. This will allow him to move through the necessary stages of grieving in a protected environment with you.

6. If your child asks if another terrorist attack can happen to him, be honest in sharing that it is unlikely, but reiterate how protective you are of him.

7. Have your child discuss his experience with other kids at school who have lost a parent, too. Ask school personnel to set up a safe environment to which he can go when he feels upset and needs to talk about it. Let your child select who he wants to talk to at school when you're not there.

8. Without forcing your child to talk, create opportunities to discuss loss with your child. Demonstrate your own strength as a role model so your child learns that it's okay to feel--and heal.

9. If your young child chooses to "play soldier" with his action toys, allow this expression of his feelings of power, but be sure that he is not being violent. Use your child's play time as a springboard to discuss being sensitive to other people. Use it to explore the diversities of cultures and the need for respect for all. If your teenager, particularly your son, is combining his need to demonstrate false bravado with anger, discuss the inappropriateness and consequences of acting out. Children who act out are begging for your attention, so give it to them in a positive way.

10. Be open and honest with your children, but not so open and so honest that you tell little ones things they cannot process and information they need not know. They need your reassurance more than anything else.

For additional information, contact Dr. Gilda
For information on books by
Dr. Gilda Carle: www.drgilda.com

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