Death in the family, separation of parents and how to deal with such matters

Children seemed ill-equipped to deal with the difficult, and sometimes tragic, situations that life can throw at them. Naturally, we want to protect them, to shelter them, we don’t want to damage the perfect, untainted worlds that children seem to exist in. Unfortunately, it’s not always up to us. Life – and death – happens, situations change, people drift apart, and yes, people do get ill and do get old, and sometimes they die.

So when these unavoidable events happen, how do we best help a child to cope? How do we help them grieve or adjust to new home circumstances? Sometimes children surprise us, and are more resilient than we expect them to be – or, than we ourselves seem to be. Other times, even at quite a young age, they can hide feelings away. Hidden feelings, however, are still feelings.


Crying child

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Death in the family

As, essentially, ‘new’ people, children can have a limited ability to grieve. Or, looked at another way, they have limited tools at their disposal to help them process and express their grief. This inability to verbalise their feelings can lead to ‘acting out’ as a way of coping with these unfamiliar, inexpressible emotions.

Young children also appear to be able to sort of ‘switch’ their grief on and off, distraught and tearful one moment, happily playing the next. This should not be taken as a measure of their grief, but merely as a sign of the way their developing brain works – inquisitive and ever-moving, with a limited attention span, however ‘serious’ the subject that’s supposed to be holding their attention. It may also simply be another coping mechanism, switching the feelings off when they threaten to become too overwhelming. The older the child, however, the less likely they will have access to this sort of coping, and the more likely it is they will stay in a ‘low’ state for a longer period of time.

As much as our instincts might prompt us to protect children, honesty, truth and participation are often the best path to take. Children of all ages are probably better engaging with the reality of death, however hard that might seem initially. Soon they become curious and have questions, and it’s best to sit down and answer these questions. At this time, having their family around them, and feeling included in everything that goes on, reinforces that sense of being supported in their grief, because a child will grieve, whether you like it or not.


Separation of parents

As a parent, going through a divorce or separation can be especially difficult. There’s so much already to deal with in terms of practicalities and financial matters, let alone what might be your own turbulent feelings, then you have your child’s needs to deal with, too.

The first problem is about how to tell them in the first place. Depending upon their age, they may already have an idea that something is wrong. They may be too young to fully understand what is happening, but the truth is almost always best. However, it needs to be a truth without blame, even if there is blame to be had. They need to know that they are not a part of the problem. You don’t have to necessarily bring that up, an unasked for “it’s not your fault” might raise some questions in a slightly older child’s mind. But “I love you / they love you” goes a long way to saying that without actually having to say it.

Children mostly want to know that things aren’t going to change. Of course, they probably are going to change, but what you can do is reassure them about the things that won’t. Moving forward, they will benefit from a continuation of their usual regime.

But probably one of the most important ways that you will be able to help them through a divorce is to present a united, consistent front with the other parent. This may not be possible in some cases, but then you do have to be as respectful as possible about the child’s perception of the other parent.

There may be all sorts of reasons you feel the other parent doesn’t ‘deserve’ their child’s respect, but this isn’t about you or the other parent. Try to see things through your child’s eyes, try to see the world as they would like it to be and do what you can to give them that. It may not be possible, but your mere efforts to do so can help to make a child feel loved when they need love more than anything else.


Image Credits: crfowlkes87