We were all stunned by the tragic news of the loss of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers in a helicopter crash on Sunday. As a generational contemporary of Kobe’s, it feels like I grew up with him, we hit life milestones — going to prom, graduation, getting married, becoming parents, and more — at the same time. Even though I didn’t know him, his loss hurts. As a parent, I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like to lose a child and I don’t want to. My heart breaks for the Bryant family and for the families of those who lost loved ones in the crash.
While these losses are extremely painful to me as an adult, I can only imagine what processing the loss of a parent or sibling must feel like for a child; not to mention losing an idol and role model. Many parents may be struggling with the question, how do we help our kids deal with grief, and the first thing to understand about children is that they will all grieve differently. After losing a loved one a child may go from crying one moment to playing the next. Others may shut down, while some may not even acknowledge or seem to comprehend or accept the loss. Children’s moods will fluctuate from anger at the person who died to feelings of depression, guilt, and anxiety. Very young children may regress to earlier behaviors like bed wetting, thumb sucking, or even baby talk.
How can you help?
Though it’s hard to know how a child will react to death and the loss of a loved one, try speaking to your child at an age-appropriate level. If they’re young, don’t volunteer too much information as this can be more upsetting and emotionally overwhelming. Instead, be available to answer their questions. Younger children may not understand the finality and permanence of death while older children will. Children of all ages will have questions and, though it will be difficult, do your best to answer clearly and honestly.
Give clear and honest answers. While avoiding gratuitous details that are not necessary to make your point, avoid saying things like “Grandma went to sleep and won’t wake up again.” For younger children this can be confusing and may even lead to fears associated with bedtime. By not being direct you are also denying your child the opportunity to develop healthy and necessary coping skills which they will need all of their lives.
Encourage your children to express their feelings. It’s good for kids to express whatever they are feeling as often as they need to. For younger children who may not be able to use words to express their emotions, give them other tools like drawing books. Help them put together a scrapbook, tell them stories about their loved one, and look at pictures together. For children of all ages, there are many good books available that deal with the topic of death that you can read together and use as conversation guides.
Attending the funeral or memorial services is an intensely personal decision that depends upon you and your child(ren). On one hand funerals can give your child an opportunity to say goodbye and gain some sense of closure. On the other hand, a funeral can be an intense and overwhelming experience. Children should never be forced to go to a funeral. If your child decides to go, prepare them in advance for what they will see and experience. Explain that funerals are sad occasions, people will be crying and upset, and if it’s an open casket explain what that means and what they will see. If the loved one is cremated, explain why there is no body and make decisions with your child about what you wish to do with the ashes. Please note that even a well-prepared child may have a negative or unpredictable reaction at a funeral and you should be ready to support your child if they do.
Maintaining routines is a critical part of the healing process for children. Your child’s world has been rocked by this major loss and it can be comforting to know that, while very different than before, some things stay the same and “life goes on.” Children of all ages feel safe and secure in the familiar, and by maintaining their routines it gives them something solid to hold on to in a time that is very uncertain and scary.
Taking care of your own grief is an important step in supporting your child. Children of all ages imitate the behavior (including grieving behaviors) and reactions of their parents and close relatives. By openly showing your own emotions it demonstrates to and reassures your children that feeling sad and upset is okay. Extreme reactions and explosive or volatile responses teach your child(ren) unhealthy ways of coping. If you’re feeling like your emotions place you in the latter category, call in reinforcements such as other family members and close friends to help out.
Seek professional help if your child seems unable to cope with grief or seems unusually upset for an extended period of time. Professionals can help your child cope with loss in a healthy way and they can offer advice, counseling, and tools/strategies to you as you support your child. You can’t protect your children from the pain of loss but you can help them develop healthy coping skills to help build up their resilience as they move into adulthood.