Talking about loss

Death and loss are difficult enough for adults to fathom – so how do you help your kids deal with it?

We tune our parenting to match the maturiy of our kids, but a key ingredient remains the same right the way through : love, expressed through warmth, affection, affirming words and availability 

Hearts that can love can also break, says parenting expert John Cowan. As adults, we know that losing someone we love can throw us into deep grief. Children feel emotions just as acutely – maybe even more than we do – but they usually don’t know how to express or process them. A few insights can help you to better care for a child after loss.

There is no one right way to help a grieving child, and certainly nothing that will get the pain over and done with in a short period of time. I think the most important thing is to step in and take their pain seriously. We tune our parenting to match the maturity of our kids, but a key ingredient remains the same right the way through:love, expressed through warmth, affection, affirming words and availability.

That might be very hard: your emotional energy might already be depleted by your own loss.

It can take almost heroic levels of courage to push past your own pain to help comfort someone else. Please be careful; the stress may rebound on you, maybe some time after the event.

Two key insights into the grief of children are that they grieve in bursts, and they have a limited ‘emotional vocabulary’, meaning that they do not understand or express emotions well. Your child may appear almost callous with how quickly they seem to get over a loss – they might be out playing games the day after a parent’s funeral – but then a few months later they’re kicking over desks at school and picking fights with their closest friends. The grief has resurfaced, raw and sore, but it is being expressed in immature (and sometimes objectionable) ways.

Your child might be anxious or cranky or reckless; once again it is time to step up and be close and comforting, even if they are prickly and awkward and may not seem to appreciate your attention.

For more extensive resources on this topic, visit Skylight Trust or check out Parents Inc.

John Cowan is a key presenter of Parents Inc seminars and fronts the regular Sunday night Real Life show on Newstalk ZB. A former scientist, John draws on 18 years of experience working with young people and their families. He is married with three teenage children and has co-authored several parenting books.

Good reads

Book cover Book cover Book cover

While death is always a difficult topic, here’s a selection of sensitively written books that don’t shy away from the feelings that come with grief.

One example is See Ya, Simon by Kiwi author David Hill. Simon has muscular dystrophy, but his best friend Nathan doesn’t believe he will die. When the inevitable finally happens, Nathan learns it is better to celebrate friendship rather than be crushed under loss.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson also deals with the death of a friend. Terabithia is an imaginary land where Leslie helps Jess find courage. When Leslie dies suddenly, Jess draws on this newfound strength to cope with his loss and move on with his life.

This excellent book was recently made into a movie. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is another favourite. Charlotte the spider teaches Wilbur the pig many things – including that life comes to an end. All three titles are Puffin paperbacks published by Penguin. –Lois Huston

New Zealand-based Gecko Press specialises in English translations of curiously good books from all over the world. Here are three beauties that deal with death and loss

Book illustration

Duck, Death and the Tulip
Written and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch
Gecko Press 2008, $18
This unusual but surprisingly moving story features a duck who forms an unlikely friendship with Death. Not your average cutesy animal picture book (Death is a slightly creepy character with a skull and frumpy chequered dressing gown), the story’s subtle touch and droll humour makes it ideal for starting a conversation about death with older children and teens. Was once declared by Kim Hill to be “now my favourite book of all time”.

Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals
Written and illustrated by Hélène Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt
Gecko Press 2012, $36
Hundreds of years ago dwarf elephants and giant sloths, hedgehogs and beavers roamed the earth. Species elimination is as depressing a topic as any but this book combines cartoons with naturalist drawings, mythology and science for a captivating tribute to the birds and animals we no longer have with us. Includes New Zealand’s own moa and magnificent Haast eagle.

The Bear and the Wildcat
Written by Kazumi Yumoto, illustrated by Komako Sakai Gecko Press 2011, $29
“Yesterday I had no idea that today you would be dead!” Bear cries, in this moving tale of loss and new beginnings. Yumoto’s artful storytelling is perfectly underscored by Sakai’s understated drawings – with monochromatic pages subtly splashed with pink as Bear journeys though all-consuming grief towards acceptance. –Sarah Heeringa

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