Change is never easy, but if it’s anticipated at least there’s time to think, talk, prepare, and gradually reshape relationships. When a tragic injury or serious illness is sudden and unexpected, there is no time for adjusting. Without any warning our family dynamics dramatically changed with a car accident. It was difficult for me to comprehend what happened, but even harder to explain it to our young children. A child depends on their parents not only for their physical, but also their emotional and spiritual well-being. When you are the only parent left to handle all the responsibility it’s overwhelming and nearly impossible. How can you help a child cope alone when you’re grief-stricken yourself? Fortunately there is family, friends and professionals that can help.The hospitals provide family counseling and so does the rehab center. There are also children’s school psychologists or counselors. It’s difficult to take the time for counseling sessions when you already feel overstretched by the responsibilities of caring for your loved ones. You may wonder why you should take an hour or so to open up to a complete stranger. You may also feel stress due to the threat of your loved one’s death and needing to spend all the time you can with them. As hard as it is, it’s important to make an effort to work through the grieving process—not only for yourself, but for your children too.
Like adults, children may need encouragement to share their grief. It’s not good to bottle up feelings. You don’t want to preserved them for later. Offering support to a grieving child can begin with a simple statement or open-ended question such as:
- I’m sorry your mom/dad/sister/brother is hurt/ill.
- What do you miss the most?
- What is the hardest part for you?
- What is the hardest time of day for you?
- I care about you.
- I care about how you are feeling.
- Is there anything I can do to help you?
- Is there anything I can do help you feel better?
- Would you like to talk about it?
- Whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here for you, or I’m available at this time, if you’d like to talk then.
- I’m here to listen if you want to talk, or just spend time together if you don’t want to talk.
Some statements or questions can be hurtful and harmful to a grieving child such as:
- I know just how you feel.
- You need to move on.
- You’ll get over it, or get over it.
- It will be okay.
- Don’t think about it.
- You are better off.
- Don’t cry.
- Tears won’t help.
- It’s your fault.
- Be strong.
- Forget about it.
- You are the man/woman of the house now.
- You should feel….(proud, relieved, happy, sad, etc.) I don’t believe any adult likes to be told how they should feel, yet it’s hard to remember children are no different.
More than a year after our accident a counselor suggested I have one-on-one dates with each child. I did this at least once a month until they got to be teenagers and didn’t want to go with me anymore. We did simple, inexpensive activities such as bowling, going to the library, getting ice-cream, or going to the grocery store. Together we planned the activity and scheduled a time, most often on a Friday night. Usually it was a fun and enjoyable date, however there were a few times it didn’t turn out the way I’d hope it would and I often wish I could have done more with them. I wasn’t perfect at hiding my stress, but I did the best I knew how to help them feel loved and appreciated by me despite the heavy load of responsibility.
What have you done to help your children cope with a traumatic change?