HELPING YOUR CHILD LIVE WITH GRIEF WITHOUT RELIGION

REBECCA HENSLER

Loss enters every child’s life eventually. Many children experience some sort of death during their youth: a pet, a relative, a classmate. Some even lose someone integral to their lives—a parent or guardian, a sibling, a cherished grandparent, a close friend or teacher—before they reach adulthood. As a parent, you want to both comfort your child through the early months of bereavement and help them learn to live with their grief as they grow up. My goal in this essay is to provide you with guidance in this area, one that often seems overwhelming to even the most confident parent.

I had supported families through this process as a school counselor, but it was not until I founded the secular grief-support network Grief Beyond Belief that I became familiar with the particular challenges secular families face when their young ones are grieving.

Like every adult, every child grieves differently. A young person’s grief depends on so many factors: their relationship to the deceased, their developmental age, the nature of the death itself, and the surrounding family and community before and after the loss. Beyond this, there is simply the child: the personality, resilience, and internal resources and challenges that shape his individual needs.

That said, certain themes permeate both professional advice and the experience shared by parents: Be honest, be open, listen, and validate.

Honesty begins with being truthful with the child about the death itself: when, how, and why the death occurred, and what death means. Avoid euphemisms when informing a child, especially a young child, of the death of a loved one. Expressions like “gone away” or “gone to sleep” can confuse or even scare a child. Instead, be very clear that death is the complete end of all processes of life, such as thinking, feeling, eating, and moving, as well as of any sort of pain or suffering, and that death is final and irreversible.1

Rachel, whose children have experienced multiple losses, writes, “What worked for my children was being honest with them about what happened and how. Yes, the truth can be scary, but so can the unknown or what they might make up in their head. We let them ask any questions they have and give honest answers.”

You may worry that you are not offering the comfort that a believer would by softening the information with religious platitudes. Keep in mind that many of the euphemisms believers offer young children can actually frighten them more than the truth. The idea that God wanted the child’s sibling with him or “needed another angel” can make a child wonder whether God will next want them or another beloved family member.2 By telling the truth, you free your child from these fears.

Secular parents sometimes voice a related concern that they are depriving their child of the solace of an afterlife belief. When explaining the death of a loved one, it may seem like heaven is the kindest lie you could ever tell your child; it is difficult to tell a child that someone is gone forever. As Erin, whose sons were 5 and 12 when they lost their grandfather, writes, “You want to fix everything for your children. . . . Many times I thought, ‘This would be so much easier if we were religious because I could just say, “They’re in heaven.” ’ But that is ultimately the denial of death. You cannot avoid death, and that is a hard reality to face at a young age.” The key to supporting a grieving child as a secular parent is to provide comfort that is based in reality, as well as healthy ways to process their grief.

In addition, remember that by being honest with your children, you are sparing them the cognitive dissonance that can result when a rational child attempts to digest the idea of heaven. Imagine the obvious questions in your child’s mind: “I know that space is above me so where is heaven? If my uncle is in heaven, does he miss me? If Grandma is watching over me, does she see me peeing?” To a logical child, particularly one who has observed the natural world, the truth about death fits what they already know about life without inducing unnecessary anxieties.

If your child will be interacting with grieving peers or adults who are believers—and most do eventually—you will need to have a frank talk about other people’s beliefs. Help your child decide ahead of time how they want to respond to religious condolences. Discuss the difference between how they will respond to a person expressing their own beliefs, especially another child, and a person pushing belief on them.

None of this is to say that you must correct a child who imagines an afterlife for their loved one. It is up to you whether to correct these notions as you would any other incorrect idea your child acquired about how the world works—being careful not to shame your child for having been comforted by the belief. The alternative is simply to listen to the child’s afterlife idea with respect and compassion. Many children will let go of their imagined comforts when ready, particularly those raised with critical thinking skills. There is no need to push this process.

In our group, Crystal shared her thoughts on the topic: “My daughter believes my parents are in heaven. She knows I don’t believe in that and why, but more importantly she knows that she doesn’t have to believe what I believe. She has a choice.”

The exception to this is if your child’s belief is frightening rather than comforting them. In this case, allow the child to explain their ideas, but then explain the reality of death to your child. Assure them that you know that their loved one cannot feel any pain or fear and that their mind and body have completely stopped.

Regardless of whether you choose to correct any mistaken beliefs your child has about death, a conversation about this sort of belief might provide a good opportunity to talk with a child about the comforts of imagination memory. Help your child identify ways in which they could use their imagination to enjoy the continued presence of the deceased in their mind, perhaps by imagining a conversation they might have, or envisioning how their loved one would react to a current event in their life. Make sure they know that this kind of daydreaming is normal for grieving people.

With older teenagers, you can even help them understand the ways the brain responds to grief and loss—for example, the confusing denial and grief hallucinations some people experience immediately after a death. Amy describes the conversations she and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Sydney, shared following her seventeen-year-old son Jake’s death. “It is the brain doing what the brain does, and feelings, however convincing, are not always an appropriate tool for determining the most logical next step. I encourage and practice critical thinking and an objective point of view.”

The second piece of advice parents in our group agreed on was the importance of being open with their children about their own grief. Rachel explains, “I believe [seeing me cry] has made my boys more empathetic and reassures them that even well after someone is gone, it is okay to be sad and that they can talk to me about it.” Erin agrees: “We need to show them that we grieve, too, and that it is okay. To teach them that while it hurts to have someone die, memories are invaluable and the joy of living with them is worth the pain when we lose them.”

Professionals and parents agree that perhaps the most important thing you can do for a grieving child is listen. Amber shares how much just listening to her nieces seemed to make a difference when they were grieving their great-uncle: “They talked about things he did for them, but mostly just how sad they were. It seemed like being given that space to just express their sadness made them feel better overall.”

Some children may struggle to express emotions verbally. Genevieve, whose son was only 18 months old when his father died, describes this well: “He couldn’t tell me what he felt—but he told me what he wanted. He often asked to see pictures and videos of Eric, and I obliged. I found it hard, but I thought if it can help him through this and strengthen his memory of his dad, let’s do this.” You may want to offer less verbal children metaphorical ways of expressing their feelings, such as asking them to describe feelings as a color or a kind of weather, or let them pick from a selection of pictures of facial expressions.

As a counselor to grieving youth, I have observed that even with these supports, not all children are able to process their grief verbally. Grief manifests differently in different children and teenagers; they aren’t all ready to share memories and loving feelings about their loved ones. They may be experiencing conflicted emotions, including anger, guilt, and shame, that they are not necessarily comfortable disclosing to a parent or caregiver. Particularly for teenagers, grief can be complicated, entangled with negative as well as positive feelings they have about the deceased, about themselves, and about those who have survived and remain while the deceased is no longer there for them.

Listening becomes all the more important in this context—respecting your teenager’s limits and requests while remaining available and making accessible other adults with whom the adolescent may feel more comfortable talking. This can be difficult for parents, particularly when they themselves are grieving.

The final consensus among group members regards the importance of validating your child’s individual emotions. Children often suffer from what is known as disenfranchised grief simply because many adults have so little understanding of the internal emotional lives of children. Hilda, whose daughter was 15 when her little brother died, recalls: “I never minimized her suffering. Some would say, ‘It’s her brother, it’s not like he was her child.’ I defended her from statements like that and always validated her feelings. She owns her grief, and nobody is allowed to take it from her.” Amy says of her daughter, “I validate her pain, her unsteady footing, her confusion, her fear, her determination, her tenacity, her love, all of it. I tell her I’m proud of her.”

Children and teens who have lost a brother or sister will require particular validation of their concerns as the surviving sibling. “I remember when Jake died,” says Amy’s daughter Sydney, “I said, ‘I don’t want this to come across as selfish, but I don’t want to be the forgotten child.’ ” Veronica describes a different fear: “Considering we lost another child, my son was terrified that he might die too. I wanted to give him a place to express those fears without feeling silly.”

Honesty, openness, listening, validation: These acts alone go a long way to support a young person through grief without resorting to myths and mysticism. Beyond these basics, there are two types of help that parents can offer grieving children and adolescents: the things we can do for them and the things we can support them in doing for themselves.

Among the former, providing comfort in whatever way feels right to you and your child is primary. Erin illustrates with a story:

One night my five-year-old was in bed and just started crying because he was thinking about “Paw.” I climbed in bed and just hugged him close and let him cry, and I joined in on the tears. My twelve-year-old heard us and sheepishly looked in the room with tears in his eyes. I opened my arms and he ran into the bed to join, and we all just hugged and cried. And that was okay, there was no shame in being sad.

Another form of comfort you can offer is sharing stories of your child’s loved one with them, encouraging them to focus on the lasting influence that the deceased has had on them and the way it shapes their own identity and abilities. Engaging your child in these conversations periodically over time—demonstrating that there is no deadline after which they will be expected to stop talking about their loved one—assists your child in learning to live with grief in a healthy way.

Provide additional relief by asking trusted adults who are not themselves grieving to aid in supporting your children emotionally—or simply to provide periodic breaks from grief with favorite activities. Once an adult has agreed to furnish this kind of assistance, identify them to your child and practice how the child can seek comfort or distraction from them—a phone call, a text, a note—when they need it.

Rachel reminds us of the importance of communication with the other adults with whom your child will be interacting. “I informed their teacher. Not because they should be treated differently, but just so the teacher is more aware of what is going on because anything could trigger them or they might do poorly on a test because they are distracted. If the teacher sees a change at school, the line of communication will already be open so concerns can be addressed.” School counselors can also do regular check-ins with grieving students and provide other resources.

It isn’t always predictable what an adolescent will want or need from you when grieving. As Carol wrote, “My daughters, 13 and 10 when my husband died in a plane crash, say the best thing I did for them to help with their grief was to get them a dog. They tell me that dragging them to counselors hurt more than it helped.” Jennifer, whose daughter was in her first year of high school when a beloved mentor died, suggests: “Even as your kid might seem to be falling apart, it can be very helpful to project a confidence that they will find a way to organize themselves, that they will find their own resilience. And for them to do that, you have to give them a little space. This is sometimes particularly difficult when your instinct might be to smother them with protective embraces.” Amy agrees. “I respect her, even when it means she needs space while in the throes of anguish, as she did the moment we found out he was gone. I don’t take her need for space personally.”

Not taking your grieving teenager’s angry, erratic, or rejecting behavior personally is one of the challenges of caring for a grieving adolescent. The key seems to be—as in so many situations—to be infinitely kind and patient on an emotional level while maintaining dependable and consistent structure and limits.

Structure—knowing what can be depended upon—becomes very important to a child at a time when the world seems unpredictable, with a loved one gone and usually reliable adults acting differently. Whether the loss has just occurred or your family is in the process of adjusting to a new reality, to the best of your ability, let them know what is going to happen in the coming hours, days, and weeks and who will support them through it.3 This includes setting limits for their behavior as well. The fact that grief and sadness often manifest as anger for teenagers can make this extra challenging. Teaching your child that their pain does not justify abusing others can be hard, but it is such an important lesson for a humanist adulthood that it is worth both explaining and modeling even at this difficult time.

You may begin to wonder whether and when to seek grief counseling or therapy for your child or adolescent. In Healing the Bereaved Child, Dr. Alan Wolfelt delineates signs that a grieving child may need counseling. They include “total denial of the reality of the death”; “prolonged physical complaints without organic finding”; “chronic hostility, acting-out towards others or self”; and “consistent withdrawal from friends and family members.”4 Note that Wolfelt uses terms like total, prolonged, chronic, and consistent in describing these signs, differentiating them from behaviors you might observe in a grieving but healthy and resilient child.

As Erin noted, as a parent your instinct is to “fix everything.” But in supporting your grieving child, much of what you will find yourself doing is helping your child identify and engage in activities that help them live with grief. This may be particularly true with young children, who have a more difficult time with abstract concepts and therefore with abstract comfort. To an older teenager, the idea that a beloved elder has taught them a skill or knowledge that they can use in the future to help others—allowing the deceased a sort of immortality—might be very comforting. To the toddler or school-aged child, the concrete act of baking Grandpa’s favorite cookies and sharing them with people who also loved Grandpa provides the same sense of continuity without requiring abstract thought.

Regardless of age and development, the very humanist consolation of acts of kindness and creativity in memory of a loved one are comforting to children. The key is to match the activity to the developmental level. For a young child, drawing pictures of their loved one, or of things that person liked, can be an excellent way of processing grief. (Don’t worry if the pictures seem disturbing or morbid; children often lack the filters of social niceties regarding death and can be quite literal.) Art is also a great outlet for a preteen or adolescent, while journaling or writing a letter to their loved one provides an additional opportunity to express their emotions.

As the young person moves forward in their life, the task of grieving becomes a matter of finding ways to enfold their love and grief into their own sense of self as it develops. This sort of meaning-making is as important to a grieving child as to an adult. Volunteer work and philanthropy in memory of a loved one can be matched to any developmental level. Even a young child can put aside a bit of their allowance over the year to donate in memory of a grandparent or buy an item for a holiday toy drive in honor of a friend who has died. When the child engages in this activity, talk with them about how proud or happy the person they are grieving would be. An older child can participate in fundraising activities and volunteer for causes or organizations important to their loved one; a teenager may even choose to engage in activist causes.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one other way we can help the children we love is to support them in engaging in non-grief activity as well as in processing their emotions. Rachel seems to have come to this intuitively. “We ask them what they would like to do. If not sure, we would suggest drawing a picture or having some quiet time. We also say that if they want to cry, that is okay. If they want to go back to playing their video game, that is okay, too. Because, just like some adults, kids may not want to focus on their grief right away but instead be distracted till they are ready to process.”

This parent’s instinct to both give her children time to process grief and to offer them ways to distract themselves from their sorrow is remarkably consistent with grief researcher George Bonanno’s findings that suggest that resilience in grief correlates with flexibility and context-appropriate expression of emotion.5 There is no reason to think this applies any less to children. Make sure your children know it is okay to laugh and play and enjoy life as well as to grieve; encouraging them to balance happiness with sadness will help them incorporate the loss into their lives and emerge healthy and happy from the early period of intense sorrow.

Which, of course, raises the question, “How long will my child be hurting so much?” There is no easy answer, in part because the impact of the loss is so dependent on the degree of attachment and reliance the child felt for the deceased. The death of a parent, for example, will be grieved in an ongoing way through the course of the child’s development. The impact of other losses will differ. Do not worry if your child seems to become “their old self” quite quickly. But also don’t be surprised if waves of grief hit periodically—particularly at holidays, birthdays, death anniversaries, and special occasions such as graduation, big games, and performances—and you need to pull out a reliable comfort all over again. Help your child find ways to incorporate their love and memories into these difficult moments.

This essay is only a beginning. I encourage you to seek out some of the excellent writing done on this subject, including books to read with young children and evidence-based advice from clinical psychologists and researchers. Journal prompts and therapeutic art projects abound. Numerous camps and groups provide support for thousands of grieving kids and teenagers every day—just make sure to communicate clearly with organizers and counselors that your family is secular and confirm that all activities will be appropriate for a child grieving without faith in a deity or afterlife.

I want to end with this message: You’ve got this. When you are loving, honest, and listening to your grieving child—and ready to seek professional help if needed—you are raising a child who will live with grief in a healthy way, both now and in the future.

I’ll close with the words from secular teenager Sydney to her mother, Amy, who has supported her through the terrible first year following the death of her brother Jake:

Our relationship is stronger than ever. Going through this loss together, as mother and daughter who have lost a son and brother, grieving with as rational minds as we can have is so important to me. You bring me up from my lowest lows, something Jake once did. I love you, Mama.

REBECCA HENSLER founded Grief Beyond Belief, a support group for grieving people who do not believe in God or an afterlife, in 2011. Hensler’s own son Jude died at three months of age in 2009. She works as a middle school counselor and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wife.

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