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Grieving as a Family

The following is an excerpt from The National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) Grief Talk: Talking to a Child or Teen to Let them Know Someone has Died.

Provide Honest And Accurate Information
When talking to anyone about death and dying, a good rule of thumb is to talk simply, honestly, and with love. Remember to get down to their level and find a quiet and comfortable location to begin the conversation.

Validate, Normalize And Educate On Grief

Given that each family member has a unique relationship with the person who died, everyone will incorporate the loss into their life differently, and their grief responses will vary. It is important to respect and honor the unique responses of each member of the family.

You can do this by using a 3 L’s (Look, Listen, and Learn) approach. LOOK at how each family member expresses themselves, LISTEN for their unique feelings and thoughts, and LEARN more by asking questions. When children and teens feel validated and heard in their own families, this can empower them to share their stories with others.

Coping Skills 

Coping skills are behaviors or actions that we take to relieve stress and deal with a death loss. Within a family, we may see a variety of healthy and unhealthy coping strategies. Unhealthy coping behaviors tend to feel good at the moment and may seem to offer relief from the problem or emotion.

Healthy coping can often help improve mood and decrease anxiety as well as normalize the experience. Unhealthy coping skills tend to bring negative consequences and maybe illegal or dangerous, whereas healthy coping strategies promote positive healing. Talking with family members about coping strategies can be very helpful in creating a supportive environment in which growth and healing are encouraged.

Each individual within a family may cope very differently with death. Some family members may find it helpful and comforting to have photos of the deceased displayed while others may find it difficult. Some may show outwards signs of grief, while others may be more private. Some may need to talk about the person who died, and others may find it too painful.

Cultural Norms Impact Grief
Cultural norms influence how family members react to a death loss. Every culture has its own customs, beliefs, and ways of expressing grief. Rituals and traditions can provide a sense of normalcy, routine, and structure.

Culture can provide a framework for families for how to cope once someone has died. For example, many cultures’ common tradition
is wearing black clothing to demonstrate a family is grieving. This tradition can provide families a sense of unity and togetherness that
is vital during the grieving process. In essence, cultural beliefs can help families cope and bring a sense of comfort and normalcy to the
grieving process.

Establish Routine, Roles, And Safety

It may seem as though everything changes when a loved one dies. Developing new routines may seem counter-intuitive, yet they may
serve to help offer some sense of normalcy in what may be an otherwise very chaotic situation.

Asking for your children’s input about how they would like to move forward can be a wonderful way of giving them some control over
a situation that may otherwise feel very uncontrollable. The parent/caregiver/guardian is encouraged to engage children and teens in the process of deciding on new routines as this can truly open up some interesting conversations that you may not otherwise have had.
The death of a loved one has an impact on every person related to the deceased. Bereaved families can find that roles that once existed
are no longer the same (how do you stop being a sibling? A parent? An aunt? or a cousin?) It is important to acknowledge these changes in roles (and equally important to talk about how that makes each of you feel) while remembering that death may end a life, but it does not have to end the relationship.

Establish Boundaries And Discipline Around Behavioral Challenges

After someone in their life dies, one of the first things that happen is the loss of predictability. Bereaved children do best in a family that has established structure, boundaries, and discipline. After someone has died, parents and caregivers often wonder whether they should discipline their child or teen in the same way they did previously. Children who are bereaved need structure, routine, and discipline.

Maintaining family expectations and structure enables children and teens to feel more secure within themselves and their family, and, thus, more comfortable. Death brings so many shattered beliefs about how the world works and the predictability of life. As a result, bereaved children and teens need structure more than ever.

While keeping the family rules and expectations, it is also very important to allow for exceptions. Bereaved children are often struggling with their own emotions and how to cope with everything that is going on all around them. They might act out as a way of showing their emotions, including anger, sadness, worry, and frustration. When parents and guardians show understanding and compassion, this enables a grieving child the freedom to explore their feelings in ways that are healthier for the child and the entire family.

How Families Support Each Other

Ensuring that everyone in the family is feeling supported can often feel like a juggling act. This is why establishing communication early on can help to create a supportive environment. This may include addressing how families will communicate through the following topics:

  • When is it appropriate to do grief check-ins?
  • When and how a family addresses conflict, concerns, or differences.
  • How will a family determine if someone needs space or additional support? • Families should keep the lines of communication open and transparent or confidential when necessary.
  • Establish some verbal and nonverbal ways to communicate that additional support is needed.

Having these discussions (even though they may be difficult) can help create emotional awareness and expectations for how each family member will communicate with one another. It is also important to recognize that these family-based communication styles can act as a guideline that may change and evolve over time based on each family’s needs.

Supporting families through milestones, events, ceremonies, or honoring and remembering

Bereaved children and teens should be included in milestones, events, and ceremonies that involve honoring or remembering the person or people in their lives who have died. This helps them stay connected to their person in a way that is very meaningful and beneficial to coping and healing. One of the things that children understand is that people may die, but their love for them never dies.

It is not unusual for children to talk to the person who has died, or to wonder what advice their person would give them now, as they are growing up. Staying connected can bring immense comfort to them. Children often want reassurance that the person who died will not be forgotten.

When deciding how to remember or honor the person who died, invite children to give input about what would be meaningful to them. If it is taking flowers somewhere special, ask children to help pick out the flowers. If it is a birthday or special day that the family is remembering, ask the children how they would like to celebrate

© 2020 National Alliance for Grieving Children | ChildrenGrieve.org

This article is not intended to assist those currently experiencing a serious mental health crisis. Please dial 911, visit your nearest emergency room, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for more assistance.

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