Andrea Dorn

How To Teach Your Children About Grieving Well, According To A Psychotherapist

Andrea Dorn, MSW, is a mom of two boys, author, and clinical social worker who has worked in the social work field with adults and children for over a decade. Andrea is the author of the Mindful Steps Series ™, a series of children’s how-to guides designed to empower kids with the foundational understanding of important developmental skills and concepts for key milestones common in early childhood.

If you’ve ever experienced a loss of any kind (ahem, this is likely all of us), you can probably relate to the overwhelming feelings that come with these difficult transitions. Grief, loss, and change are arguably some of the most common and frequent human experiences we have throughout our lives. In fact, research shows that we begin to experience emotional impact from loss as early as infancy, meaning we experience forms of grief early and often. And while this common experience should strengthen our resiliency and unite us in community, our well-intentioned but grief-avoidant culture often finds us feeling separated, isolated, and alone.

Common misconceptions surrounding loss typically revolve around grief and healing. Society’s mixed messages say that grieving is normal and beneficial, but at the same time, it should be done behind closed doors while feigning positivity and strength. While this is extremely impactful messaging to adults, it also affects our youngest and most vulnerable grievers—children. Children are commonly forgotten in the grieving process, despite the fact that they look to grownups to know how to act and cope with the feelings they’re having. Children need delicate and intentional guidance to learn how to cope with grief. Avoiding or delaying exposure to the concept of painful emotions may seem like a sensible or protective thought process, but in doing so, we miss the crucial opportunity to begin to normalize and validate children’s processing of loss, which they are already naturally experiencing. It is also a missed opportunity to begin sharing coping strategies with children, in an effort to create emotionally resilient adults.

But what is “grieving well?” “Grieving well” means openly normalizing and experiencing the naturally occurring thoughts, feelings, and experiences that come with all forms of loss while moving (steadily, but sometimes slowly) towards acceptance. By bravely “grieving well,” parents and adults provide their child with the foundational understanding that feelings related to all forms of grief are normal, and when feelings are normalized, they’re easier to talk about, they hold less power, and they can more readily be processed. 

What does “grieving well” look like? For starters, grief looks different for each person so processing this grief will also vary based on the individual. It is important to try different coping skills to find one that works for you. The following five practical ways are beneficial to begin working through and normalizing grief for ourselves and ultimately, our children.

Actively find a support system:

Grief and loss can feel incredibly isolating. Whether you’re grieving or not, it can be helpful to bulk up your support community. Work towards creating small, regular points of connection with people who have your best interests in mind. To do this, you can join a support group, connect with your spiritual community, find a supportive online group, or reach out to a therapist. In a world where we are increasingly independent, intentionally creating a supportive community not only creates a safe space for us, but it models the importance of relationships for children.

Practice working through tricky emotions:

In a world where many of us have become avoidant of emotions, emotion tolerance is a helpful skill set to build. If we allow ourselves to sit and feel difficult emotions when they arrive without trying to change or fix them, we provide an opportunity to build resilience and growth in experiencing these emotions. Stop and truly notice an emotion to allow it to run its course or follow its path. Provide this same support for your children by creating a safe space for them to express all emotions (even the inconvenient ones!). 

Take care of yourself:

Take care of your basic physical and emotional needs. Make sure you’re slowing down and allowing space for yourself and time to lean into your emotions. Give yourself permission to set aside at least 15 minutes per day to intentionally engage in self-care practices without interruption. Pause at least once a day to slow down and simply connect with your breath to allow your mind some rest. Taking care of yourself not only provides needed strength and revitalization in caring for others, but it also normalizes this practice to your child. 

“Grief out loud”:

This is not only the title of a great grief podcast, but it’s also a wonderful phrase to remind yourself that it’s okay to courageously push through discomfort by experiencing and sharing your grief with others. You can also have thoughtful, age-appropriate conversations like this with your children; using children’s books are a great way to start these conversations. Model working through your own grief feelings, which can encourage healthy social-emotional growth in your child and help them to build resiliency. Alternatively, we can make space for others to grieve. Consider that confusing behaviors may be connected to feelings related to loss. Use curiosity and reflective listening to validate others’ feelings, and be open to talking about their loss, even if it feels uncomfortable for you.

Find your flow:

Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson offer a simple, yet effective metaphor to describe the idea that our “best self” lies in the balance between a sense of chaos and rigidity. Imagine you are canoeing down the “river of well-being,” where the embankments are rigidity and chaos, and the gentle current in the middle of the river is where we find a flexible and peaceful “flow.” In the river of grief, finding our flow allows us to slowly and gently advance towards acceptance. While it’s normal to experience the embankments, using the strategies above can help you embrace the ride and return to your flow more easily. 

Grief is raw, messy, and uncomfortable, but it’s also transformative. The more we shift the conversation to grieving openly and authentically, the more we will be able to foster a community that encourages grieving well at any age.

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