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How to support a grieving child through shared grief - Phaneuf

How to support a grieving child through shared grief

You may have seen parents posting images of their children holding funerals and memorial services with their comic book action figures, while giving the “Wakanda Forever” salute. Chadwick Boseman, who recently died, played the title character in Marvel’s “Black Panther” film, one of the most-popular comic book movies of all-time. A tribute post on Twitter is now the most-liked Tweet ever, with 7.7 million likes as of this writing.

How to support a grieving child through shared grief - Phaneuf

Shared grief over a celebrity dying is not new. Millions of mourners  visited Elvis Presley’s gravesite in Graceland. The tears for performers like Prince, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe and Jerry Garcia as well as popular athletes like Kobe Bryant could create a new ocean. But why do we grieve for people we hardly know?

“These connections are not just about how much we love, appreciate and respect these people, but sometimes because they remind us of, well, us.  This can be as specific as their connection to a moment in our past, or as general as the fact that they are about our age or have something else in common to us,” writes Litsa Williams in a piece for the site What’s My Grief.

Reasons why we feel grief when a celebrity dies

  • Someone we know who died was a fan
  • We connect to the reason for the celebrity’s death
  • The celebrity’s work helps us get through the day
  • It feels like losing a piece of our past
  • Their output of new work is over

For many children, a favorite singer, athlete, actor, writer, etc. helps shape their personalities. That death may be the first one they experience as reality and not as a concept. Or, a celebrity death may trigger past grief of losing a family member, pet or friend.

“For children who haven’t yet experienced death in their personal lives, the death of a favorite celebrity can mimic that ‘first death’ experience,” says Dr. Katy Hopkins, a psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Group. “A child may become overly concerned about safety for their loved ones, including parents, siblings and friends.”

How do we talk to children about death?

Death can be a challenging concept for a child to fully understand, so questions they ask may be difficult to answer. Here are things to keep in mind when talking to children about death.

  • Be honest and open, and try not to oversimplify what has happened.
  • Express sympathy, and let them know you also feel the loss. Stress things will take time to go back to normal.
  • Be supportive of the grieving process, as we all grieve in different ways and have our own coping mechanisms. Give space as needed.

Age and maturity level often dictate how to talk about death. Young kids often take things literally, so consider avoiding phrases like “went to sleep”. Children typically take everything said as truth, so it’s best to explain that someone has died so they can begin to accept it.

Slightly older children often have more questions. You may need to share some details on the death. Clear explanations are best. For example, if someone died from cancer, you may want to explain in simple terms how sometimes cancer patients do not get better from treatment, and sometimes they do.

After age 10, children become more logical and may realize that death affects them, too. For example, if a child of this age hears of a fatal accident, they will start to think about how they, too, could die in a car accident. It’s important to deal with their emotions, whether they are fear or grief. Children may need reassurance they are safe and being provided with support and comfort during the grieving process.

Regardless of the child’s age, provide them with the level of information about death that they can comprehend. Each child will handle death differently, so it’s important to do whatever it takes to bring comfort and understanding.

How to support a grieving child

During the time when a child is grieving, you may need help supporting them through grief. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Offer children the opportunity to express feelings or to tell their story. Let them be the teachers of their experience with grief.
  • Help children understand loss and death.
  • Encourage children to ask questions.
  • Allow children to grieve at their pace. Grief has no timeline.
  • Be honest. Half-truths don’t help healing.
  • Give children the attention and support they require. Share activities to help them cope.

While you’re helping a child through the grief process, remember that it’s OK for you to grieve too.

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