How to be the Adult a Grieving Child Needs

The blog post below is a very brief summary of Pooky’s on demand course ‘Be the adult a grieving child needs’.

Be a human not a hero

When a child is grieving, the trusted adults in their lives become their role models for grief.  As such, it’s helpful if you can stay in touch with your human side, to give a child permission to grieve less than perfectly

  • All feelings are valid
  • There is no right and wrong way to grieve
  • Sometimes things feel unfair or scary or horrible
  • Explore different ways of managing feelings
  • Rupture and repair… how do we pick ourselves back up when we fall down?
  • You don’t need to have all the answers

Become a safe base

When a child’s world has just fallen apart, they can often feel very uncertain about doing things they used to do with ease, and the idea of doing new things can be beyond terrifying.  In order to help rebuild their confidence in managing day to day, they need a safe base from which to begin to explore this new world in which they find themselves and that safe base is something very powerful you can provide.

  • Expectations – what can they expect of you, what can you expect of them?
  • How can you make things predictable and consistent? 
  • Building social scripts and interactions that feel comfortable to the both of you, shared understanding of things that builds that bond
  • Always be there when you say you will, think carefully with them about when they’re ready to try new things and scaffold that experience so it’s positive
  • Don’t over protect them. They need to stumble occasionally if they’re ever to fly

Run towards and sit with their distress

Although grief is a perfectly natural process, it terrifies us.  Often children manage it better and in a far more straight forward way than the adults around them; but our fears, misconceptions and worries often mean that we shy away from letting a child truly visit and experience their feelings of distress.  These feelings are perfectly normal, natural and incredibly healthy part of the grieving process and having an adult who they can reliably be with as they work through those feelings will really help them to heal.

  • Create an environment where it is safe to cry…and laugh
  • Don’t discourage crying and anger, instead make time for them; sometimes shelf the worry
  • Ask open questions or encourage them to play, draw or write about how they’re feeling
  • Their feelings may be very jumbled. It’s not your job to make sense of them; but it can be your job to be with them whilst they start to work through them
  • This will often evoke big feelings in yourself so make sure you look after you too. 

See the whole child

Remember that first and foremost you have a little person in front of you who is so much more than the death that envelopes them right now.  Always keep a hold of the past and the future and help keep the child in touch with all the things that matter to them.  

  • When we overidentify with grief it can be hard to move forwards
  • We find comfort in normal things
  • Though sometimes it feels hard to return to normal things and more support is needed
  • There can be guilt attached to looking to the future, help give them permission for hope and aspiration

Don’ t be the only adult

It’s a real privilege to form a special bond with a child who is grieving, but it’s really important both for them and for you that they cast their network wider than just you.  This is especially important if the person who died was their primary attachment figure and you’ve stepped into that role. 

  • Identify the attachment figures in their life
  • Explore what can be done to reinforce these attachments right now
  • Consider what their network looks like at school, at home etc
  • Remember that the adults will be grieving too and may need support
  • Reassure grieving adults that they need to be humans not heroes
  • Intergenerational groupwork can form the foundations of incredible bonds

Further Resources:

Bereavement: 10 Simple Ways to Support – on demand course

Be the Adult a Grieving Child Needs – on demand course

Support a Grieving Adult – on demand course

Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change: A Guide for Professionals and Parents – Book