By Kelly Youngblood
The Champaign-Urbana community has been hit hard with several recent tragedies involving young people that may have led to some discussions with your child about death.
So what do you say to a child who has experienced the loss of a friend or loved one or to any child who has questions about death?
Kathleen El Koury, a LCSW from Insight Therapy in Champaign, says it’s difficult for parents to know the right thing to say in these circumstances but she offered the following suggestions:
Go With Your Gut: El Koury said parents know their children best so listen to your instincts when talking about death. “As parents, with anything, we just have to go with our gut and go with what we know about our child that is asking.”
Be a Good Listener: The number one thing parents can do to help kids deal with grief is to be a non-judgmental, listening ear. “A child may be experiencing emotions they’ve never experienced before and questions they’ve never thought about before.” Above all else, a child needs to feel like they can talk and their parents will listen to their concerns.
Validate Your Child’s Feelings: “If you’re not sure what to say, validating their feelings can be a good route to go to so that they feel heard and that the feelings that they have are real and very important.”
Talk About Your Own Grief Experience: “If it feels right, parents could also talk about their own experience with grief, not to necessarily minimize or overshadow their experience but to try to find some commonalities to talk about. And also to help the child learn this is very much a process and that it will take time but that it will get better in a way.”
Find a Special Way to Remember: El Koury said parents can help their child find a special way of remembering the person. For example, maybe fill a shelf with pictures and other mementos in honor of their loved one’s memory.
What Parents Should Avoid
Not Talking About It: Shutting down the conversation every time a child brings up the subject of death should be avoided, El Koury said. If a parent is dealing with his or her own grief and finds it too difficult to discuss, a child may need to talk to another trusted adult about his feelings.
Not Telling the Truth: With younger children, parents may find it hard to determine how much they need to know. They may feel it’s easier to say things like “Grandma is sleeping.” But that can lead to other problems, El Koury said.
“Trying to be cautious, sometimes we end up stepping into a hole without even really needing to,” she said.
El Koury said regardless of the age, if a child is asking questions about death, it’s a sign their minds are already developing enough to talk about it.
“So that gives us a bit of a clue that their minds are already wandering in that area so while we might be uncomfortable having discussions about death, particularly with younger children, (we should) answer the questions they’re asking the best we can,” she added.
When to Seek Professional Help
When grief seems to be sustained over a long period of time, parents may need to consider getting some professional help for their child.
While it’s normal for grief to initially feel like depression and include anxiety too, El Koury said when those negative feelings seem to be “turning into a mood”, it might be a sign to get help.
It’s difficult to put a time frame on when a parent should start being concerned. She said if over time a child just can’t seem to “shake it” or they can’t stop thinking about it, it could be time to talk to someone.
El Koury said it’s also a good reminder to both adults and children that the grieving process isn’t the same for everyone. And while it can be lifted, grief can also stay with us for a very long time.
“Grief, the loss of a loved one, is really not something we get over. It’s something we learn to live with. It’s something we find a place for in our minds and our day-to-day lives,” she said.
How to Help Local Families or Make Memorial Donations to Local Organizations
Here is more information about how to help the families of Matthew Prather, Sara Shuler and Christian Sheehan.
Matthew Prather, an 18 year-old senior at Mahomet-Seymour High School, was known for his dimpled smile and love of football. He died of natural causes at home on March 24. Donations can be made to three different organizations in Matthew’s name.
Christian Sheehan, 23, also died in the house fire. Christian was a former Parkland Student Trustee and worked at the Champaign Park District for five years. A memorial fund has been set up for his family.