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Teach your children how to cope with loss

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

There will always be loss, grief; help children learn how to cope

Cat's out of the bag: Before our daughters were born, my husband and I had a stillborn son. When my now-7-year-old daughter was 4 or 5, I made the mistake of telling her about her brother. I did it for a reason I now see was selfish, relating to my own grief.

It seems hearing of her brother has left a deeper and sadder impression on her than I anticipated: She recently cried during a Disney movie in which the main character thought her two brothers had died. After the movie, my daughter told me she wished "God could bring my brother back to life."

I never should've laid such a burden on her at such a young age. And I realize now I shouldn't have let her watch that movie. (I thought it was safe because it's Disney — another mistake.) I know there's no point in beating myself up over this, but do you think I've screwed her up over the long term?

Carolyn: What if you had lost your son after your daughter was born — when she was 4 or 5? You would have had to share the truth with her then, and nurture and educate her through it, and encourage her both to express her feelings and put them in a larger context.

Death doesn't wait for kids to grow old enough to understand or handle it. It comes when it comes. Losing a child is among the most devastating of losses, but nothing lives without dying. Even families who have astonishing good luck will eventually have to bid farewell to a grandparent, a pet, an older teacher, a neighbor.

"Eh, everything dies, even you" may not be the way to break this news to a dewy 2-year-old, but it is part of your parental responsibility to teach life and death in an age-appropriate way. I'm not sure you can do that effectively while you continue to beat yourself up for telling your daughter the truth.

Please stop revisiting your decision and think ahead, long-term.

Help your daughter develop her own emotional strength. When she cries, hold her and say you still feel sad about it, too. Then say you love him and he will always be in your heart — and tell her it's okay for her to keep him in her heart. Then say how happy you are to have her.

In other words, don't feel you have to block out or chase away grief. It's there no matter what, so let her know it's okay to have many different feelings at once — sadness for what you've lost, gratitude for what you have, happiness for having each other.

As it happens, this is why many kids' movies aren't "safe"; they allow kids to experience very difficult emotions — then show the way back from these dark places.

Maryland: Re: Loss: Remember that 7-year-olds tend to be dramatic; mine is occasionally very mournful about the cat that died when she was a baby. She doesn't remember the cat, but it gives her a reason to be sad when she's looking for one.

Carolyn: Yes, yes, yes. True of all people, to a degree, but especially of those who don't have words for what they feel. Thank you.

Teach your children how to cope with loss 11/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 3:30am]
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