How to help kids cope and recover

One of the hardest lessons in life is learning that nothing and no one lasts forever. So, some of the best gifts we can give our kids are tools to cope with loss—and helping them understand that grieving is part of loving.

"Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve, so even before children are able to talk, they grieve when someone loved dies," says Alan Wolfelt, director of the Fort Collins-based Center for Loss and Life Transition. "Experiencing the loss of someone loved can be a chance for children to learn about both the joy and the pain that comes from caring deeply for other people. If handled with warmth and understanding, a child’s early experience with the death…can be an opportunity to learn about life and living, as well as death and dying.”

When a parent dies

Losing a grandparent, aunt, uncle or friend is difficult, but if a child loses a parent, their whole world changes. Katrina King and her daughters experienced this in November 2016 when Katrina's husband and the girls' father died suddenly and unexpectedly from an illness.

King feels open communication has been key in helping her daughters process their father's illness and death. "Be honest with your kids about the situation and communicate," she says. "I realize that depends on the age of the kids involved, but make sure they know it's okay to express what they are feeling, to be able to say, 'I'm sad, I miss Dad.' Being told it's okay to feel that way so that they can process the feelings is a big deal. Also, don't be afraid to share what you are feeling with your kids; that way they know it's okay to feel what they are feeling too."

Wolfelt adds, "Adults who are willing to talk openly about the death help children understand that grief is a natural feeling when someone loved has died. Children need adults to confirm that it’s all right to be sad and cry, and that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever."

Another way King has helped herself and her daughters cope is to maintain as much normalcy in their lives as they can. They haven't moved, changed schools or their routines. "We've kept our schedule as normal as possible."

King's instinct to minimize change was spot on. Mia Towin, a Pathways for Grief & Loss counselor, says, "For children who have had a loss, particularly the loss of a parent, it is generally recommended to minimize disruptions and other changes that might result in secondary losses, such as loss of home, school, family members, friends and community. Children going through the grief process benefit most from a stable and healthy environment."

Recovering from divorce

Divorce presents another type of loss that children and parents will grieve, regardless of the circumstances of the split.

Judith A. Myers-Walls, education director at OnlineParentingPrograms.com, says, both parents and children need to grieve when a marriage ends. "They need to grieve the loss of the family that was, the loss of dreams and hopes for a 'perfect' family, the loss of expectations that everyone would be together for all holidays, and so on. If the parents' relationship had been very difficult and involved a lot of conflict, everyone could feel relief after the break-up, but there is still some grieving to be done."

However, unlike the death of a parent, the loss of a parent after a divorce or separation is not necessarily final or irreversible, and this presents additional challenges.

"If the break up is not final or definite, the family will be dealing with 'ambiguous loss,' when no one is sure whether it is an end or not. That can be even harder than a sure break up," Myers-Walls says. "As soon as possible, parents should make a clear decision about whether this is final or not and then help their children (and themselves) let go of the past and prepare for a new future."

Growth through grief

Wolfelt offers these closing thoughts: "Grief is complex. Children do not choose between grieving and not grieving; adults, on the other hand, do have a choice—to help or not to help children cope with grief. With love and understanding, adults can guide them through this vulnerable time and help make the experience a valuable part of a child’s personal growth and development."


 How to help children grieve

  • When someone loved dies, don’t expect children’s reactions to be obvious and immediate. Be patient and be available.
  • As an adult, be a good observer. See how each child is behaving. Don’t rush in with explanations. Usually, it’s more helpful to ask exploring questions than to give quick answers.
  • When describing the death of someone loved to a child, use simple and direct language.
  • Be honest. Express your own feelings regarding the death. By doing so, children have a model for expressing their own feelings. It’s all right to cry, too.
  • Allow children to express a full range of feelings. Anger, guilt, despair and protest are natural reactions to the death of someone loved.
  • Children are a part of the family, too. And reassurance comes from the presence of loving people. Children feel secure in the care of gentle arms and tenderness.

Courtesy of The Center for Loss and Life Transition (www.centerforloss.com)

Local grief support

You don’t have to go it alone when working with grief. These resources in Larimer and Weld county can help.

OnlineParentingPrograms.com—provides parenting classes and support for divorcing couples in Larimer and Weld Counties and other counties in Colorado

Pathways for Grief & Loss—offers a variety of grief resources for Larimer County residents. www.pathways-care.org.

TRU Hospice of Northern Colorado—provides grief support services in Weld County. www.hospiceofnortherncolorado.org.