Guiding Kids Through Experiences of Loss
by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)
(listen to article read by the author)
Part of growing up is experiencing loss. As much as you love your kids and hate seeing them in pain, you cannot protect them from all harm. The good news is that being human means they are equipped for resilience. They will fall down and they will pick themselves back up.
Your job is to be there for them through their pain … not to prevent the experiences from ever happening. They can and will survive many painful situations. Their losses will fuel some of their most powerful growth and learning.
Experiencing Little and Big Losses
Dealing with loss starts when your kids are babies. They experience loss when you leave them in someone else’s care. When my daughter was a baby we’d leave her at the nursery for an hour while we attended a church service. Even though she was being held by loving people, she cried much of the time until we returned. She eventually learned that she was safe and that we would always come back.
As she grew into a toddler, she enjoyed playing alongside other children. She then experienced the loss of another child taking a toy from her. She also helped them experience loss too by taking their toys! These losses involved tears and learning how to ask politely instead of grabbing toys from others.
Experiencing and handling small losses builds important skills. When your kids are young, you can often help ease the loss by providing some type of fix. A cookie can go a long way in helping a young child cope with a small loss!
As they grow older, they will experience losses which you cannot fix. These losses might include:
- Being sick and missing out on activities
- Not being selected for a team
- Not getting a part in the school play
- Losing their childhood body as puberty begins
- Having something stolen
- Having a relationship break up
- Expecting to do well but instead doing poorly on a test
- A beloved pet dying
Glennon Doyle describes how she turned to bulimia to cope with the loss of her petite, pre-puberty body.
In a Momastery blog post, Doyle wrote “I became bulimic when I was in fifth grade, and I binged and purged several times a day until I became pregnant with Chase, at twenty-five. I was never truly overweight, but when I was young I was never skinny either, and most of my friends were. At some point this difference started to make me uncomfortable. Back then I didn’t know that discomfort was an inevitable part of life. I thought the fact that I was uncomfortable meant that something was wrong with me that needed to be fixed. Bulimia seemed like a good plan to fix my wrongness. Anorexia was not an option because I found too much comfort in food. Binging helped me forget my worries, numb myself from anxiety, and best of all – hide from life, relationships, my own dramatic thoughts and everything else scary.”
When your children are experiencing losses you can’t fix, you may feel powerless. What can you do to help your kids through these losses?
What Not To Do
You may feel like helping your children run away from the loss or minimize it. Although you just want your kids to stop hurting, the unspoken message is that they aren’t strong enough to handle the loss.
These are some things to avoid doing:
- Discounting or minimizing their feelings. Saying things like “Cheer up. It’s not that bad. You’ll have other opportunities.”
- Ignoring what happened and not discussing it.
- Trying to distract your child from the loss.
- Giving advice.
It’s hard to allow your kids time to grieve. Julie told the story of her 11-year-old daughter's cat suddenly dying one evening after getting into some poison. Emma was devastated. She asked her mom to call some of her friends and tell them what had happened. Her mom made the calls. Her dad went out and bought candy and some chips for Emma.
When your children are hurting, it's tempting to try to rescue them from their pain. While Julie was trying to ease her daughter's pain by calling her friends, she was also sending an unspoken message that Emma wasn't strong enough to make the calls herself. It would have been difficult for Emma to tell her friends. However, she would have experienced her own strength along with the healing that comes from telling others that her cat died.
Grief is a natural emotional reaction to loss. Trying to fix your child’s loss reduces their opportunity to work through their grief. Since experiencing loss is part of life, you want them to develop healthy ways to navigate through loss.
What To Do Instead
Talk to your child about the loss. Listen generously and then listen some more. Do not try to fix the problem. Instead try to see the situation from their eyes and show them that you understand what they are going through.
Normalize the feelings they are experiencing. Everyone feels sad, lonely, afraid, angry and awkward at different times. Feeling like you are different from everyone else is also normal. Let them know all these emotions are part of being human.
Help your children understand strong emotions are signals to pay attention to. They contain important information about experiences. These emotions also provide the catalyst for learning and growth.
Watch for red flags that your children are not coping well
with loss. Some kids feel they need to keep their troubling feelings to themselves so as not to burden others. Stuffing feelings makes things worse in the long term. You really do need to feel it to heal it. You can best help your children deal with loss by walking along side them through it.