Everyone Wants to Know How to Talk to Grieving Kids

August 20th, 2013

 The National Alliance for Grieving Children is working hard to raise awareness about children's bereavement. A recent poll of grieving kids is getting some good press and helping centers like Good Grief in Morristown, NJ further articulate the tremendous need for support.

I spoke with the Chicago Tribune about one result from the poll: 63% said that people don't have to "give me special treatment; I just want to be treated like everyone else." You might ask yourself, if 63% of bereaved kids don't want special treatment then what are we supposed to do with them? Isn't it just easier for us to single them out, give them good grades, let them eat as much chocolate as they want, or roam the streets until dawn looking for meaning? If we shouldn't make them special then what do we do or say?

I think these 63% of grieving kids don't want adults making assumptions about how they feel and have expectations about how they should act. It's all too common that kids are booted from the classroom every time they look sad or express an emotion. They're also excluded from activities with their peers because no one knows what to say to them or how to interact.

As a death-adverse society, we no longer have transference of grief-knowledge coming from our elders to the next generation. Most adults aren't sure how to manage or interact with grief so it is left unspoken and ignored, creating an isolating experience for a child whose peers are looking to the adults to give them some ques. Most adults haven't figured out that a grieving kid can be both happy and sad at the same time and that these feelings aren't mutually exclusive. Kids have grief bursts—feelings and memories that seem to arrive from nowhere—and can experience many emotions in a short period of time. At the end of the day, kids want to be understood and have their feelings felt. They want to be normal.

But when I'm interviewed about grieving children one of the first questions is always "what should we say to grieving kids?" I get it. People don't know how to talk to a grieving kid and want to know the buzz words, memorize a helpful phrase, spew words of comfort like a repetitive mantra in order to replace the old "I'm sorry." But for me that just seems lazy.

If grief is a unique and an individual experience then no repetitive mantra is going to do the trick. In fact, it's like grandmas everywhere (at least both of mine!) have been saying for years: "actions speak louder than words." Forget the careful wordsmithing and the special treatment. Tell the bereaved that you care. Tell them and then show them that you're there if they need you, and that you'll be there for the long-haul. Take the time to listen, ask about the person not about how they died, offer a memory, and don't make assumptions or judgments. And when you're through with that do it again and again until they tell you they don't need it anymore. Give them space and give them love.

It sounds simple but it's not. Our lives are busy and it is because of that busyness, in part, that we've forgotten how to support the bereaved. We've filled our schedules so much that we don't have the time to offer an ear, sit for a chat, toss the ball, and play a video game. Calling for the support of bereaved children is a call for a cultural revolution, a shift from chasing life to living it and engaging in one of its most crucial characteristics: the human connection. You can't come up for a catchy phrase for that sort of love.

Originally posted at The New Jersey Journal, 4/12/12 used with permission of the author.

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