- Katie Lear is a licensed clinical psychologist and mother of a toddler.
- She wrote a book about helping children process grief.
- This is the story of Lear, as told to Kelly Burch.
This as told essay is based on a conversation with Katie Lear. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was in high school, my friend’s mother died unexpectedly. I called her up and did my best. “I heard your mother is not well,” I told her. “You could say that,” my friend snapped back.
Now that I’m a counselor, I can see that I had internalized our society’s taboos around death and grief. I felt that “dying” and “death” were bad words – as if saying them would suddenly emphasize my friend’s immense loss. I was afraid I had screwed up the whole thing.
Today, after helping hundreds of families process grief, I know there is no way to mess up these conversations. Yes, they will be uncomfortable, pompous and painful. But the only way to really screw them up is to not have them at all.
Give children the opportunity to talk often about grief
Death and sex are two of the biggest taboos in American culture. We just don’t talk about it enough, and it seeps into our parenting. But grief is a universal experience. We will all grieve at some point, and we will be doing our children a disservice if we don’t help them through it. We also give them a signal that we cannot handle grieving. I’ve often heard children say they haven’t talked to their parents yet because their mom or dad isn’t ready yet.
As with the birds and the bees, you have to let go of the idea of one big conversation. Instead, talk often to your children about grief. Remember that grief can be caused by more than just death. Children going through parental divorce, moving, or being adopted all experience grief.
I often hear from parents who want a script for these conversations. Unfortunately, there isn’t one right thing to say. The best thing we can do as parents is to be open to the discussion.
I use ‘sad Jenga’ to get kids talking
When children come to me for counseling, I turn to play therapy. One of my favorite tools is ‘grief Jenga’. I use color coded blocks or blocks with colored stickers on them. Each sticker represents a prompt. Green might be a happy memory, purple might be something you don’t understand and red might be something you miss. As you pull the block out, answer the prompt.
This is a powerful exercise because it prompts children to articulate things that might not otherwise be on their minds. And since the child and caregiver take turns, it shows that you are also processing your grief. When a child grieves, a parent almost always grieves too.
Children and parents experience grief differently
Parenting through grief can be overwhelming. But it’s okay to show your kids your grieving process. They may witness crying or be angry. Just make sure they see you take care of yourself too.
Remember that children experience grief differently than adults. Their young minds can be overwhelmed with grief, so they just step out. You may see a child running, laughing and playing with friends and assume they are not grieving. But they will probably step into that grief later that day. Going in and out of grief is how children cope.
Grief can be debilitating at first, but it should become more bearable with time. If it gets worse, it’s time to get help. Not all children who experience grief need counseling, but I recommend it for children who experience a violent or sudden loss or death of their primary caregiver. Adults often need to navigate the grief of complex or ambiguous relationships, such as grieving a miscarriage or the death of an ex.
By talking about grief, we can help each other through it, one conversation at a time.