Mary Lyles, LCSW, Phd
Child Grief Therapist and Christian Counselor
“Children absorb the news as much as they can, and then they go play. They process for a while – then they take a break.”
My child was sad at first, but now it’s almost like everything is back to normal. Is this a typical way for a child to react to such bad news?
It can be very confusing. Children absorb the news as much as they can, and then they go play. They process for a while – then they take a break. It’s very different than how adults will deal with it. Kids will also want to comfort you, and protect you from their own feelings of sadness. They may hide some of their sadness. This is very normal. They don’t want mom to be upset and sad.
My job as the mom is to help my kids. So how do I help them watch me being sick and close to dying?
Try to keep their lives as close to normal as possible. Even if there are treatments, and you are getting sick from the treatments, try to find people to step in so their lives are still predictable. Do homework, go to practices. And try to let them know what to expect, what will be happening next. If you are having chemo and will lose your hair, let them know, hey, I am going to lose my hair. It’s better to let them know.
Should I even help them start the grieving process, since I am dying?
On some intuitive level, your child may begin to suspect that you are not going to get better. You may see denial, anger, attachment, lots of tears and/or clingy-ness. If you have a degree of acceptance, and can talk calmly, you can let the child know that your faith gives you peace that it is okay. Children will reflect the messages you give them.
What more can I do?
Listening is very important to. Repeat back to them some of what they say, so they feel heard. But don’t try fix it. You can’t fix it. Many kids may start to wonder: ‘What is going to happen to me?’ Even if there is a good father, or partner in place, it can become, ‘What if dad dies?” It is so important to reassure them that that there is a written plan, a legal document, that says who will take care of them. Kids need to know that they are safe when they are scared.
Is counseling a good idea for kids 6-12 years old?
Definitely. Many communities have experienced counselors who can talk with your children, and some cities now have “anticipatory grief” groups for young children who are facing the death of a parent. If you are well enough, try to get your child there. Look online and you may find resources in your community that you didn’t know about that can be a great help.
My child is concerned that she made me sick, or should be making me better. What can I say?
This is normal—kids are very egocentric; they think of themselves in terms of cause and effect. Reiterate more than once that they didn’t cause it, they can’t catch it, and they can’t fix it. Your child should know her job is to be a child, to play, and have fun, and even include you, if possible
My child is very worried about what will happen to my body. What should I say?
Demystify as much as you can. Be concrete. Talk about whether your body will be buried or cremated. Explain, and tell them that the body no longer feels anything, no hot or cold, no pain, nothing. I often say it is like losing a part of your body. A hair. Or a leg, even. That part is not who you are, and your body is not who you are. I use a puppet. The puppet plays, and learns, and runs and then, it gets sick. It can’t go on, and the body is finished. But the spirit is still there. I take the puppet off and put it away and show them – the hand, like the spirit, is still here, just fine, but the puppet is gone. A child six or older can grasp that.
Mary Lyles is a counselor in private practice in Colorado. She is the Executive Director of the Child Grief Education Association, which she co-founded in 2004 to reach out to communities without adequate resources to help grieving families.