Coping with the death of a loved one, particularly if it is an unexpected and sudden death, is a traumatic experience for any family.
Understanding the process of grief that follows and that this process will be different for each member of the family can help you all support each other.
As the adults in the family begin to cope with the loss, the easier it will be to support the children.
There are stages of grief and knowing what they are can help each of the adults to identify what is needed to manage them.
These stages are not linear stages, they cycle backwards and forwards and people have their own time frame that depends on many factors including their own history of loss, life experiences, personality and other supports available.
The first stage is usually shock and denial, when it’s hard to believe that the death has occurred. Some people have a strong need to talk about what happened, even weeks or months afterwards, in order to absorb the information. For others, talking will be too intense for them at that time, and they will need space.
Respecting that each person’s need is unique to them, that there is no right or wrong way to go through the process, means people can all grieve differently, but still be supportive of each other.
Anger usually surfaces at an early stage and this is a normal emotional response to loss. It can take the form of blame – God, bad luck, someone’s fault – so this period may need to be managed so it doesn’t cause further distress (especially for children). Encourage the anger to be expressed in a way that doesn’t cause more harm.
Talk to someone who isn’t involved and who can listen to the anger without taking it on board, do some physical activity or punch a pillow. Getting the anger out in these ways will lead into the next stage of grief.
This is the hardest part for most. When the anger is worn out, we uncover the deeper feelings of pain and sorrow underneath. These feelings may surface days, weeks or even months after the loss. Again, being able to express the feelings in a safe and supported way is important.
Don’t try to be ‘strong’ for other members of the family, if being strong just means bottling your feelings up, and give others permission not to be strong for you. Be open with what you are going through and where you are at, this gives them permission to do the same. This is where strength comes from: sharing from this deep, intimate level and giving comfort. Some members of the family will be more comfortable with this than others, so again, respect differences.
Check in with each other regularly to see how you are doing. Some people can find themselves in the final stage of acceptance just as others are beginning the process. Talk about this possibility and the need not to take it personally.
Periods of depression are a natural part of grief and loss, particularly in the early stages and then around significant events like birthdays and anniversaries for years afterwards. As the months and years pass, people normally find they recover quicker from the periods of depression and there are more good times in between them. Keeping a journal of the waves is a good idea to see how you are faring.
Get good at self care. Recovering from a death takes up the same amount of emotional energy as recovering from a serious illness. Rest, nurture yourself, accept all offers of help, food parcels, someone to run errands and remember when bills are due.
It is possible to get “stuck” in some stages of grief. If depression or anger continues unabated, if you (or another family member) start drinking too much, working too hard to avoid dealing with the feelings, experiences panic attacks (anxiety can often accompany depression) or you are concerned for any other reason, it might be time to seek some extra support. Talk to your G.P or a counsellor. A good place to start is the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors: www.aarc.org.au.
How to support children through a death:
Like adults, children need space, understanding, permission and patience to grieve in their own way. They might not show grief as an adult would, or in the same way as other children. One child might not cry, another act out aggressively or become hyperactive.
Be honest (with age appropriate information) and encourage questions, even if “I don’t know” is the answer. Avoid phrases such as “went away” or “went to sleep” as these can cause children unnecessary anxiety when people do go away or they go to bed themselves.
Littlies won’t understand what’s happened, but they can be very aware of the emotions that are going on around them. They may react to these by being unsettled, having tantrums, being clingy or reverting back to more babyish behaviours. This should pass as the family starts to recover. Try to keep their routines as normal as possible.
For children under about five or six, this might be their first experience of death so explaining it in simple terms can help them understand what happened like “…his body stopped working. The doctors tried to fix him, but they couldn’t and so he won’t be coming back”. You may have to be patient and say something like this several times before it sinks in for them. They may then have other, literal, questions about what happens after somebody dies.
At this age they may just need simple information about what happens at a funeral. Asking children of this age to draw pictures of what they are experiencing is a good way to get them to open up and process their feelings of loss.
6-10 year olds have a better understanding of the finality of death and more awareness of the ‘scariness’ of it through exposure to stories of ghosts, vampires etc. so again it’s important to give honest and simple answers.
Their questions about death can be literal or spiritual, so this is may be a good time to share your spiritual beliefs with them. With regards to funerals, explain what will happen at the funeral and leave it for them to decide whether to attend or not.
Teenagers can experience the same emotional rollercoaster as adults, but they can also try to hide their feelings so as not to burden adults and they can also act out. Sharing your own feelings in a non-burdening way can model this healthy style of expression for them and at the same time open the lines of communication both ways.
Sadly, grief and loss is a part of life that we can’t protect our children from. Helping them learn how to cope gives them emotional resilience and life skills that can help them recover from future losses. The website Kidshealth.org has some more information. Some schools or community services run age-appropriate programs (Rainbows or Seasons) for children who have experienced a loss.
To those reading this that have lost a loved one - I am so sorry for your loss.
I can only hope that as a family it brings you closer and my thoughts are with you all.