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Help children cope with death and grief
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- For many Americans, the winding down of the war in Iraq means a return to normalcy, but life will never be the same for those who lost a parent or other loved one in the conflict.
Regardless of how the loved one died, children need encouragement and understanding when navigating the difficult -- and sometimes frightening -- stages of grief.
Louise Davis, a family and child development specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, recommends parents be aware of the five stages of grief and be prepared to help children cope. Common reactions to death and other unexpected life changes include denial, anger or resentment, fear for self or other family members, depression and, finally, acceptance.
"Everyone grieves differently, and it can be especially difficult for children because they probably have never experienced the death of a loved one," Davis said. "They don't understand the permanence of death and can't comprehend the reasons it would happen to someone they love. Parents have the daunting task of addressing these issues, often while dealing with their own grief."
Key to helping a child overcome grief is understanding that all children grieve differently, and accepting those often confusing differences. Parents should remain observant and follow the child's lead when broaching the subject of loss.
"The ways in which children react to death are numerous, but almost all of them are normal. Some children may not seem upset at all, but in reality they just don't know how to deal with their pain," Davis said. Other normal reactions include anger, distractibility or fatigue. Some children will refuse to discuss the death while others need to talk about it almost constantly.
Whatever category a child falls into, parents must be accepting and take the appropriate steps to help their child cope with death. The most important step is talking about the loss and the feelings of sadness and anger it causes.
"A person can grieve from six months to three years, and even though there are predictable stages, everyone is different," said Ann Jarratt, a retired MSU Extension 4-H youth development specialist and professional counselor. "Children need to be allowed to openly discuss the loss during all stages. Acknowledge the loss is painful and sad, but emphasize that it's the natural order of things."
Parents can help children understand death by explaining that all living things eventually die, from plants to pets to family members. Assure both boys and girls that feeling sad about a loss is natural, and that while the pain will eventually begin to subside, it will never disappear.
Children should feel comfortable talking about and remembering a lost parent or loved one. This will teach the child to cope with sadness and loss in a healthy way, paving the way for a future of positive memories rather than unresolved issues.
"Talk about happy memories, and keep pictures to remember the good, fun times you had together," Jarratt said. "If a child doesn't seem to be expressing any emotion, the parent can ask him to draw a picture of how he feels or what he remembers about this person. Openness is the key: let your child know it's always OK to talk about the death."
Parents should also avoid rushing their children through the grief steps, remembering that each person reacts and copes with loss differently. Be receptive to a grieving person's wishes to discuss or not to discuss the loss.
"Don't shame a child for experiencing grief. It's a mistake for anybody to say, ‘It's about time you got over this,'" Jarratt said. At the same time, "act normal because this person is the same person he was yesterday except that he has a sadness today."
While it is important to help children cope with death, parents must remember to take care of and allow themselves to grieve, as well. Maintaining a regular, predictable routine benefits both parent and child.
"It's good for the parent to have responsibilities, and it's good for the child to have that stability. It conveys the message that life is going to go on despite our loss. We'll feel sad, but we'll continue to live without our loved one," Jarratt explained. "If kids see that Mom is maintaining the usual routine -- even if she can't get through dinner without crying -- they see that she's still Mom and she'll always be there for them."