Grief Support

Put the Oxygen Mask on First: Grieving Adults Parenting the Grieving Child

Erin Spalding, LCSW, Program Director, at The Christi Center has shared some insights about how parents can manage their own grief while also supporting children who are grieving. Excerpts are below that may be helpful for your family. 

Dr. William Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning

In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, psychologist William Worden identifies what he calls the four tasks of mourning.

Task 1: To accept the reality of the loss

Task 2: To work through the pain and grief

Task 3: To adjust to a new environment

Task 4: To find an enduring connection with the deceased while moving forward with life

Worden explains that, as grief isn’t linear, there is no set order for the tasks and people may find themselves returning to tasks as time passes.

But how do you navigate mourning as a parent?

Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss
  • The reality of the loss is complicated.
    • Focusing on the logistics can sometimes blur the reality
    • What do I tell the kids?
    • Do I tell the younger kids the same thing as the older ones?
    • Do I tell them details?
    • Should they attend the funeral?
Task 2: Working through the pain of the grief
  • What do I show or not show my kids?
  • Don’t I have to stay strong?
  • If I allow myself to feel it will be overwhelming
  • I lost a child, they only lost a sibling. (Now I hate myself for even having this thought.)
Task 3: Adjusting to the environment has many more components when you are caring for children
  • How will you pay bills?
  • Who will pick up kids from school?
  • Am I now coaching soccer?
  • I now have an only child, what does that mean for me and for them?
Task 4: Finding an enduring connection and moving forward with life
  • The enduring connection has so many moving parts — with spousal loss, child loss, and other types of loss.
  • My connection and my child’s look so different, how can we move forward as a family?
  • Moving forward and facing the changing roles in your world

What Is Resilience?

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is recognized as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” Basically, being knocked down by life and coming back stronger than ever.What resilience is not: extraordinary or inherent.

Factors in Resilience
  • Strong support system — provided by loving and trusted relationships
  • Being able to move forward with realistic plans
  • Optimism, particularly in your view of yourself
    • Confidence in your strengths
  • Skills in communication and problem solving
  • The ability to manage strong emotions and impulses
Ways to Promote Resilience
  • Make connections.
  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.
  • Accept that change is a part of living.
  • Move toward your goals.
  • Take decisive actions.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery.
  • Nurture a positive view of yourself.
  • Keep things in perspective.
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Key is to recognize your strengths and then work to change thoughts, behaviors and actions that are not moving you forward.
Importance of Staying Flexible
  • Allowing yourself to feel strong emotions, as well as recognizing when you may need to put feelings on pause to maintain function.
  • Then finding the time to let those emotions out rather than bottling them up.
  • Being able to be less demanding with yourself, relax, and find ways to re-energize while also facing the demands of your daily life.
  • Spending time with others to gain support, while nurturing yourself however you need to.
  • Relying on yourself while letting others be a support.

The Value of Mindfulness

Staying in the Moment: Six Steps to Mindfulness and the Challenge of Using Them in Grief
  • To improve performance, stop thinking about what you have to do.
  • Avoid worrying about the future and focus on the present.
  • If you want a future, be sure to inhabit the present.
  • To make the most of your time, lose track of it now.
  • If something is bothering you, move toward it rather than away.
  • Know that you don’t know.
Realistic Mindfulness Techniques
  • Notice your tendencies.
  • Practice acceptance.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • Question your thoughts.
  • Use reminders.
  • Be determined.
  • Follow your passion.
Staying in the Moment With Your Kids
  • Mindfulness techniques are necessary when trying to be “with” your kids in grief.
  • Breathe.
  • Ask for a minute before you respond.
  • Recognize your own feelings and how they will impact your response.
 Dealing With Triggers
  • When are your buttons pushed and how has that changed since the loss?
  • Are there times your triggers commonly happen?
  • What do you do to manage these situations?
  • What could you do differently?
    • Get a drink of water.
    • Count to 10.
    • Take several slow deep breaths.

 Listening to Your Child’s Story

  • Trying to put the “parent hat” on the hat stand for a moment and listen as an observer.
  • Only once you have actively heard what they have to say can you craft a response that is helpful and meaningful to both of you.
  • Listen quietly and attentively.
    • Use a broad invitational style: “I’m excited to hear what happened in school today.”
    • Use open-ended questions to encourage your child to open up.
  • Acknowledge the child’s feelings with a word or “listening sounds.”
    • “Oh, I see,” “Mhmmm,” “Wow, that is a lot of stuff,” or “OK.”

Give Your Child’s Feeling A Name

  • Reflective feeling statements: “Cathy must make you mad sometimes.”
  • Be careful not to use statements that judge or try to change their feelings, such as “I’m sure Randy didn’t mean anything.” Doing this can stop the child from talking.
  • One way to join with your child when you can’t change the situation but wish you could is by giving the child their wish in fantasy: “I wish Randy was as nice to you as your other classmates.”

This is an important piece of helping you both understand where you are in your grief.

Children are typically not forthcoming about their grief feelings and clarifying what they understand is important. Some examples are:

  • “Help me understand what you think happened to Daddy?”
  • “What do you think made your sister die?”

To help them continue to talk you can do the following:

  • Make eye contact and listen.
  • Make listening sounds.
  • Reflect back the feeling.
  • Invite them to continue sharing.

 Discovering How Your Child Copes and Ways to Help

Think about a stressful situation with your child and the following:

  • Behavior you observed to help you know they were stressed
  • Your thoughts and feelings during the situation
  • The meaning you gave to your child’s behavior
  • What your child was feeling and thinking during the situation

Now do the same thing with a future situation with your child and actually sit down with them and figure out all of the above pieces. Remember that it is important to be a detective about your child’s experience and discover new ways to see their behavior. 

When having this discussion with your kids, it is important to remember the following:

  • Avoid describing an emotional situation with judgment. For example: “When we were talking you wouldn’t even look me in the eye and wanted to get away. What else is so important?”
  • Have a calm facial expression and use a caring, quiet tone of voice during the discussion.
  • Remember that the way you experienced the situation may be very different than your child’s. They may not have found it stressful. Learn about their experiences by actively listening.

Talk with your child about stressful situations.

  • Acknowledge that you have them too and be willing to share what helps you.
  • Help your child explore their own coping strategies.
  • What seemed to help you feel better?
  • What did I do that seemed to help? What did others do to help?
  • Is there something that could be done next time to better help you?
  • What things can you do on your own to feel better?
  • How can you let others know you need help?
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