PARENTS

Helping Children Grieve For A Loved One

17/09/2012 16:52 | Updated 22 May 2015
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Trying to cope when someone you love dies is overwhelming.

I lost my wonderful husband Neil at the age of 44 in May. This came after six months of hell of cancer which was never going to be cured. Every day now I'm gripped by a mass of emotions arising from my heartbreak.

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But as the cliché tells us, I keep going for my children.

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Neil told me he didn't want us to become victims of our grief, he wanted us to live life to the full, loving each other and laughing together as we always have. I wrote letters for our girls from our conversations about what he wanted for them, explaining his honest hopes for their future.

But even with his precious encouragement, four months on it's not easy.

How my daughters, twins of 13, come to terms with our loss is forever at the forefront of my thoughts.

Just like adults, no two children are the same when it comes to how they face bereavement.

Like mine, my daughters' rage and bewilderment are inevitable. They ask 'Why has this happened to our dad?' I am lost for words.

We have a brilliant family counsellor from our local hospice who helps us to talk, together or separately.

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Experts - and by that I mean bereaved people - tell me you don't get over grief, you carry it with you and learn to live with it.

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And while for adults and children alike that acceptance takes time, for children it's also likely to take longer to understand what has happened.

Children's reaction and on-going grief will also be influenced by their age and may continue to have an impact all their lives.

Karen*, whose dad died when she was nine, says: "For children, death is understood in terms of what it means to them, it means they won't see that person again and that makes them sad.

"It's what made me cry when mum broke the news, and when I cried over the next few weeks and months it was always accompanied by the phrase 'I miss Daddy'.

"I'm not scared by death and I think that's because it's been openly talked about and experienced in my family – my mum's sister died within a year of my dad, and my dad's father too.

"We can forget how literal children are. As adults we understand implied meaning, but children may not always – "Daddy's gone away is a really unhelpful way of saying 'Daddy's dead'."

Laura Driver set up a blog called A Mum Shaped Hole, last adding to it in May last year.

She says: "My mum died when I was nine. I am now in my 30s and I still struggle without her. I feel regret that my grief has affected my life in so many ways.

"Immediately afterwards was strange. Although she had been ill for two years I had no idea she was going to die.

"I became very clingy towards my dad and just wanted to be with him.

"From my dad and sister's point of view it was a relief Mum's suffering had ended. I come from a family where we laugh a lot and don't really discuss feelings openly and I think although I was encouraged to grieve, I was also encouraged to think about the good times.

"Even growing up I can remember getting cold sweats if the subject of mums came up and would rather avoid the conversation than talk about it and have people feeling sorry for me.

"It's only now that I can openly discuss my mum and rather than feel embarrassed, feel proud of her.

"Since having my own children, my relationship with my grief has changed. Because I didn't have many memories of my mum as a child I felt a bit detached from her.

"But when I had the children and experienced the love that she too must have felt I felt more of a connection.

"I had a long period where I felt so incredibly sad and I still feel panic sometimes when I think that one day something may happen to me and my children will be left without a mother."

Ian at Single Parent Dad writes movingly about his experience of grief while being a father to a young son. Ian's wife Samantha died suddenly in 2005, when their son Max was a baby.

Ian blogs: "My boy understands why I don't like keeping things from him; he deserves the truth, however hard it is. On Mother's Day I explained in the morning, what was significant about the day and while that was not a grief trigger for me, it certainly was for the boy.

"While heartbreaking to witness, I was also immensely proud of my son. Proud because he had moved to such a level, gaining a better understanding of his loss, and able to show his emotion for it.

"There was plenty of reassurance and cuddling, and we spoke about his mum, and how it was now. While she has physically gone, she will always be part of him, and gave him the best possible start in the world."

Knowing what to say to children is hard.

Bereavement counsellor Dodie Graves, from Wolverhampton's Compton Hospice, says: "Because children can't always express their emotions easily, understanding how they are dealing with grief can be difficult. It is common for children to want to be strong for their family, and it can be difficult for them to know who to turn to when they need support.

"Families' bereavement support workers talk to children one-to- one, and with their families, to help them work together through their shared grief.

"They use puppets, games and art to help children express their feelings, and special memory jars and memory boxes to remember the person they've lost.

"They can also support families in learning how to communicate better together."

Winston's Wish has in-depth guidance for anyone wanting to help a bereaved child. I called them more than once when my husband had been diagnosed and found their booklet As Big as it Gets, immensely helpful.

Parenting expert Sue Atkins stresses it's important to remember that children will not behave like adults. It sounds obvious, but can be overlooked in these sad circumstances.

She says: "Children's understanding of death comes gradually."

Sue's advice has resonated with me.

"It's perfectly natural to cry in front of your children," she says. "If you explain what you are feeling."

I so needed to hear that.

Linda has started to blog about her experience of grief and how her family is rebuilding their lives here.

* Karen's name has been changed.

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