The death of a child is an impossible grief to imagine.
When a child dies in your community, it is difficult to know what to do. Managing your own sadness, confusion, anger, or worry in addition to that of your child can be quite overwhelming.
Carrie Ysseldyke, a former intern at Gilda’s Club in Grand Rapids, shared some valuable insight as to how parents can best help their child when they are grieving the loss of a classmate. Her best advice is simply to be present.
“As parents, we tend to want to fix everything for our kids. In situations like this, we can’t fix it.” Carrie emphasized the importance of listening and, “meeting kids where they are,” meaning you are allowing them the space and freedom to express their emotions whenever and however they come out.
Grief tends to come in waves. Days, weeks, or even years can go by where we feel fine, and then something can trigger a memory and all of a sudden we are a mess again. It’s all part of the process. It is crucial to deal with grief as it comes. The worst thing you can do for yourself or your kids is try and shove all of those emotions aside and insist that your grieving is done.
Linda Hughes, a dear family friend of mine for over 30 years, lost her son Scott in a snowmobile accident during his senior year of high school. Even though it happened over 20 years ago, she vividly remembers the things people in the community did that were helpful to their family during that difficult time.
“One of the best things I remember happening is Scott’s friends still coming around to visit. It really helped us all to keep his spirit alive.” She remembers one of Scott’s closest friends coming over on graduation day to have his picture taken with them. “I know that wasn’t for him, that was for us.”
Although Linda is an infinitely kind and positive person, I insisted that she give me an example of what was NOT helpful as they dealt with Scott’s death.
“The worst thing people did was avoid us. And I am not just talking about people who didn’t reach out to us, I am talking about people seeing me in the grocery store, trying to avoid eye contact, and turning around and going the other direction. That was awful.”
In reality, no one knows what to say or do in situations like this. I have always been of the opinion that it is best to reach out to people. If they don’t want your help, they will tell you. But there is no harm in offering. Simple phrases such as, “I am so sorry for your loss,” “I have been thinking about you, “ “I am here for you if you need anything,” and simply, “What can we do?” are all pretty safe options.
Linda laughed as she recalled the stacks and stacks of meals they received from people in the community. While it was all incredibly thoughtful and generous, she remembers her youngest son, Mark, asking, “When are we going to go back to just eating regular food?” Linda also talked about her other kids’ need to get back to “normal.” Allowing them to go back to school and spend time with their friends was healthy for them. But she also remembers the small ways that school and community members continued to reach out to her other children. She remembers a high school teacher who invited her oldest son, Greg, to go to a college basketball game with him. “All of those little things meant a lot.”
Often parents are unsure when they need to seek outside help for their child. You know your own child best, but as a general rule, it’s a good idea to seek out counseling services if your child’s eating and/or sleeping habits are drastically different or there is a major change in his or her emotions (for example, showing almost no emotion or becoming overly emotional). Obviously, if your child makes any statements about wanting to harm themselves or wishing they were dead, you should seek help immediately.
Local Resources for Helping Children Grieve
Kent District Library has compiled a list of books that they carry in their branches.
Other good books for kids include The Next Place, Help Me Say Goodbye, When Dinosaurs Die, What’s Heaven, and Where Are You?
Community resources that Specialize in Grief in Children
Gilda’s Club provides grief counseling for children ages 3 to 18 (and adults) free of charge. While many associate Gilda’s Club with cancer, they provide grief support for anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one
Ele’s Place provides free grief support services for children ages 3 to 18.
Starlight Ministries is a Christian grief support center located in Hudsonville.