I have found that when you are talking to children of any age about almost any subject, you should be prepared to hear things that can be so truthful, so honest that it can take your breath away. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I think it’s wonderful but you have to prepared yourself for the possibility that the unpolished truth could pop out at any moment.
That’s the beauty and wonder of children: there usually is no filter on their wise thoughts.
In my many talks with my son about his father’s death, I tried to keep our conversations as honest and open as I could. I felt it was more important for my son to express himself and vent his frustrations than it was to worry about whether his words hurt my feelings.
The conversations were for him, not me. He needed to have a way to verbalize his thoughts and feelings even if they didn’t make sense. This was about him, a then 13-year-old boy, working through his jumble of emotions instead of ignoring the pain and trying to go on with his life and tamp it down inside himself.
I didn’t think it would be constructive to tell my son that we needed to talk about his loss and then make him filter and edit his point of view. I knew he needed to say what he felt and not what he thought I wanted to hear. There were times when I was surprised by the rawness of his anger but I couldn’t show it. I figured if I did show my surprise or displeasure while talking to him, then whatever progress we made in communicating would be erased by me revealing what I felt or thought.
Hello Grief, an insightful support website for children, teens and adults, addresses having serious conversations about a loss with children and offers the following tips which I hope you also find to be helpful:
While children experience the same feelings of despair, sadness, helplessness, anger, anxiety, guilt, confusion and fear that adults do following a loss, they often do not have the maturity and experience to understand, identify and express those feelings.
Communication is key to helping our children understand their grief, and begin addressing it in healthy ways. Without communication, you will not know where your child may have a misunderstanding about how or why the loss occurred. With communication, you will be able to identify areas in which your child is struggling with their grief, and how you can help.
It is important to continue discussing the loss and after affects of the loss (such as moving, remarriage, life milestones), with your children over time.
Below are a few tips to having open, successful communication with your kids about grief and loss at any age:
- As a parent, understand what your goal is before starting the conversation – why are you wanting to talk to your child? Is there a specific issue you want to discuss? A specific question you want to uncover?
- Stay on topic – Once you decide on your goal for the conversation, don’t use this time to bring up other “issues” you’ve wanted to address unrelated to the conversation (i.e., homework, house chores, dating, etc).
- Create a safe environment – Atmosphere can play a huge role in your child’s willingness to open up about how he or she is feeling. Have this discussion in a safe place, away from others who may overhear. Don’t create an intimidating environment, such as starting this conversation in places associated with “getting in trouble.” Having a snack, or doing an activity during which talking is easy could be helpful (such as coloring/drawing, riding in a car, going for a jog, etc).
- Allow your kids to be able to say whatever they need, any way they want, to during your conversation – This does not mean you have to allow your child to use profanity if you do not typically allow it. Rather, enable your child to say what they need to say without “correcting their story,” should you remember it differently, or have a different opinion. It also means not keeping any topics “off limits” – including the details of the loss, even if it’s difficult for you to discuss. Let them say what they need, and ask the questions they need without limitation.
- Know that some things are off limits to parents – It’s not you, it’s them. And it’s normal. But, having more frequent safe, and honest conversations with your children will help them build trust and begin to discuss more. Also know that even if your child isn’t saying anything to you, it doesn’t mean they are not benefiting from the conversation. Know they are processing internally. You should also make sure that your child has additional outlets to have the conversations they can’t have with you – such as a counselor, or support group.