- Katie Lear is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and mom of a young child.
- He wrote a book to help children overcome grief.
- This is the story of Lear, as told to Kelly Burch.
This essay is based on a conversation with Katie Lear. Edited for length and clarity.
When I was in high school, my friend’s mother died unexpectedly. I called her and tried my best. “I heard your mom is not well,” I told her. “You could say that,” my friend replied.
Now that I am a counselor, I can see that I had internalized our society’s taboos about death and grief. I felt that ‘dying’ and ‘dead’ were bad words – as if saying them would suddenly underline the enormity of my friend’s loss. I was worried that I had messed up the whole thing.
These days, after helping hundreds of families deal with grief, I know there’s no way to screw up these conversations. Yes, they will be uncomfortable, tiring and painful. But the only way to mess them up is to not have them at all.
Give children the opportunity to talk about grief often
Death and sex are two of the biggest taboos in American culture. We just don’t talk about them enough, and it seeps into our upbringing. But grief is a universal experience. We are all going to grieve at some point and we are doing our children a disservice if we don’t help them deal with it. We also send them a message that we can’t handle mourning. I’ve often had kids tell me they haven’t talked to their parents because their mom or dad isn’t ready yet.
As with the birds and the bees, you should reject the idea of a long discussion. Instead, you often talk to your children about grief. Remember that grief can be triggered by more than just death. Children who go through their parents’ divorce, change homes, or are adopted, experience grief.
I often hear from parents who want a script for these conversations. Unfortunately, there is nothing right to say. The best thing we can do as parents is to be open to the conversation.
I use “wailing Jenga” to get the kids talking
When children come to me for advice, I turn to play therapy. One of my favorite tools is “grief Jenga”. I use color coded blocks or blocks with colored stickers on them. Each sticker represents a prompt. Green can be a happy memory, purple can be something you don’t understand, and red can be something you miss. As you remove the block, you answer the prompt.
This is a powerful exercise because it gets kids to verbalize things that might not otherwise be at the top of their minds. And since the child and caregiver take turns, it shows that you’re also processing your grief. When a child grieves, a parent almost always grieves as well.
Children and parents experience grief differently
Parenting through grief can be overwhelming. But it’s okay to let your kids see your grieving process. They can witness you crying or being angry. Just make sure they see you taking care of yourself.
Remember that children experience grief differently than adults. Their young minds can be overwhelmed by grief, so they just snap out of it. You may see a child running, laughing and playing with friends and assume they are not grieving. But they will probably get into that grief later that day. Moving in and out of grief is how children cope.
Grief can be debilitating at first, but it should become more bearable with time. If it gets worse, it’s time to seek counseling. Not all children experiencing grief need counseling, but I recommend it for children experiencing a violent or sudden loss or death of their primary caregiver. Adults often need it to navigate the grief of complex or ambiguous relationships, such as when grieving a miscarriage or the death of an ex.
By talking about grief, we can help each other get through it, one conversation at a time.