Helping children cope with loss
How parents help children cope with grief and loss + your chance to win a copy of In the Rainbow.

Illness and death are tough things to deal with at any age, and when they impact a family, little kids can find themselves overcome with big feelings, like sadness, anger and guilt.

To help grown-ups support grieving children and understand their emotions, we spoke with Brittany McGill, a Clinical Psychologist at the University of New South Wales.

Here she shares her insights into grief and loss, and offers parents some practical ways to help children in hard times.

Generally speaking, how can parents help children cope with grief and loss?

Every family's situation is so different, but my general advice to parents is to be up-front about what has happened. Use simple language, provide physical comfort and reassurance, and give your child time and space to process the information. In an age-appropriate way, tell your child what to expect (such as funeral plans) and encourage them to ask questions along the way.

Parents can support their child emotionally by helping them name their feelings, and by normalising the different feelings and reactions that can be part of grief – not just sadness, but maybe also anger and disbelief.

Of course, times of grief and loss are also very difficult for parents, so I encourage parents to seek their own support early if they feel they need it. Talking to your family doctor may be a good place to start – then they can provide referrals to a local counsellor or psychologist.

Are there specific kinds of words parents should use when describing death and illness?

I encourage parents to use quite concrete, simple terms such as “death” and "died" rather than "passed away", "gone to sleep" or "gone away". Death is a difficult and abstract event for even adults to come to terms with, but using language that is too vague may cause additional confusion or distress in children.

Is there a 'common' way that children react to loss, or is every child different?

Every child will react to grief and loss in a different way, according to various factors, including their age, temperament and personality. Some children may show more typical 'adult' signs of grief, such as crying, irritability and difficulty concentrating. While others may exhibit more externalising behaviours, like anger, increased tantrums, 'clowning around' and attempts to distract.

And although these reactions are varied, they are all normal. These behaviours only become ‘abnormal’ if they last for a long period of time or occur in the extreme, for example, a prolonged depressed mood or dangerous risk-taking behaviour.

What is the best way for parents to balance being open and honest, with protecting their child from difficult realities?

Parents can encourage their children to talk about their feelings, and normalise and educate their child about these feelings. For example, by saying, "I can see that you are feeling very angry today. I wonder if you feel angry that Dad died? I do too".

However, of course, some facts about the nature of the death or the events surrounding it may be inappropriate for children to hear about as they don’t have the cognitive or emotional capacity to make sense of the information.

What are some ways that other people, like teachers and family friends, can support grieving parents and children?

Keep the conversation open and keep checking in. Let the person know that you are willing and open to talk about the loss, even after time has passed. A child's school teacher may want to be on the look-out for patterns of behaviour that are out-of-character for the child. This might indicate that the child is having difficulties adjusting to the loss and may require further support.

School teachers may wish to use resources, like the book In the Rainbow, to open conversations with the grieving child and/or educate other children in the classroom about death and loss.

In the Rainbow is a beautiful book by Tracey Newnham, which follows two children grieving the loss of their father and connecting with him through rainbows. What are some other things children can do to help them cope with grief and loss?

Creative, age-appropriate activities, such as drawing and stories, are useful ways to help children explore and process grief. Parents may also wish to talk with their children about special rituals, stories or images they could use to feel emotionally connected with their loved one who has died, as Tracey has done with the rainbows in the book.

Win a copy of In the Rainbow

Written and illustrated by Tracey Newnham, and endorsed by Brittany McGill, In the Rainbow is a book that comes from the heart.

Tracey is the mother of two young sons, whose partner died of brain cancer in 2014. She created In The Rainbow to help her family and other families cope with the experience of illness and grief, and its pages are colourful, meaningful and therapeutic.

She says, "I hope that children and adults reading this book are encouraged to feel, heal, surrender, release and begin to grow and build a new life full of hope and wonder, while understanding and owning their grief."

Thanks to Tracey, we are giving away two copies of In The Rainbow.

To enter, email and tell us in 25 words or less why your family would benefit from winning a copy of In The Rainbow.

Competition starts today Wednesday 15 November and ends Wednesday 22 November, 2017 and winners will be notified by email.
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