Katie Lear is a licensed clinical mental-health counselor and mom of a toddler.
She wrote a book about helping kids navigate grief.
This is Lear's story, as told to Kelly Burch.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Katie Lear. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was in middle school, my friend's mother died unexpectedly. I called her up and tried my best. "I heard your mom isn't doing well," I told her. "You could say that," my friend snapped back.
Now that I'm a counselor, I can see that I had internalized our society's taboos around death and grief. I felt like "dying" and "dead" were bad words — as if saying them would suddenly highlight my friend's tremendous loss. I worried I had messed the whole thing up.
These days, after helping hundreds of families navigate grief, I know there's no way to mess up these conversations. Yes, they will be awkward, stilted, and painful. But the only way to really bungle them is by not having them at all.
Offer kids the chance to talk about grief often
Death and sex are two of the biggest taboos in American culture. We just don't talk about them enough, and that seeps into our parenting. But grief is a universal experience. We'll all grieve at some point, and we do our kids a disservice if we don't help them through that. We also send them a signal that we can't handle grieving. I've often had children tell me they haven't talked to their parents because their mom or dad isn't ready yet.
As with the birds and the bees, you should ditch the idea of one big talk. Instead, speak to your kids often about grief. Remember that grief can be triggered by more than just death. Children who go through their parents' divorce, move houses, or are adopted all experience grief.
I often hear from parents who want a script for these conversations. Unfortunately, there's no one right thing to say. The best that we can do as parents is being open to the discussion.
I use 'grief Jenga' to get kids talking
When children come to me for counseling, I turn to play therapy. One of my favorite tools is "grief Jenga." I use color-coded blocks or blocks with colored stickers on them. Each sticker represents a prompt. Green might be a happy memory, purple could be something you don't understand, and red may be something you miss. As you pull out the block, you answer the prompt.
This is a powerful exercise because it gets kids to verbalize things that might not be at the top of their minds otherwise. And since the child and caregiver are alternating turns, it demonstrates that you're processing your grief, too. When a child is grieving, a parent is almost always grieving, too.
Kids and parents experience grief differently
Parenting through grief can be overwhelming. But it's OK to let your children see your grief process. They can witness you cry or be angry. Just make sure that they also see you taking care of yourself.
Remember that children experience grief differently from adults. Their young minds can become overwhelmed with grief, so they just step out of it. You might see a child running, laughing, and playing with friends and assume they aren't grieving. But they will likely step into that grief later on that day. Moving in and out of grief is how kids cope.
Grief can be debilitating at the beginning, but it should become more bearable with time. If it becomes worse, it's time to seek counseling. Not all children who experience grief will need counseling, but I recommend it for kids who experience a violent or sudden loss or the death of their primary caregiver. Adults often need it to navigate the grief of complex or ambiguous relationships, like when mourning a miscarriage or the death of an ex.
By talking about grief, we can help each other move through it, one conversation at a time.
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