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Death: Helping my child cope with loss

It's hard for a child to handle the death of someone he really loves, whether a parent, relative or friend. Depending on the age, some children may have nightmares or wet the bed. Some are reluctant to go to school, or complain of things like stomachaches or headaches. Others may deal with their anxiety and stress by becoming aggressive and defiant. Others withdraw, preferring to spend time alone. Every day will be different, some better and some worse.

You can help your child deal with death by first helping her to understand that death and grief are a natural part of life. You can use this time as an opportunity to share your family belief system about what happens to the spirit of someone when the body dies.

There are several common phases in the grieving process, though not everyone goes through all of them. First there is shock and denial, then anger, depression and loneliness and finally acceptance, although these may overlap.

Get your child to tell you about memories of the person, things they did together, articles of clothing they often wore. This may make it easier for your child to talk about the person and his loss.

You can also help your child by listening and offering support. To do that, accept your child's feelings, and let your child feel unique. Rather than saying, "I know exactly how you feel," or, "Don't worry, everything is ok," try simply saying, "I think I understand." You can encourage your child to talk by saying things like, "I imagine you may be feeling such-and-such - do you want to talk about it?" You may also want to talk about how you are feeling, or about how you felt during similar experiences in the past.

It usually takes longer to mourn a parent who has died than someone else. Family occasions, birthdays or occasions that the child associates with the person who died may trigger more grief, so be ready to provide extra comfort and support then.

Acceptance of death and getting through grief takes time, and it doesn't help to encourage your child to "put on a happy face" when he's still upset. Also, try to avoid saying unsympathetic things like, "Aren't you over it yet?" Normal grieving close to, or at the time of the death, is less damaging to children in the long run than keeping it all inside, although each child grieves at his or her own pace.

If your child is showing signs of lasting depression, withdrawal, or self-destructive behaviour, consult your child's physician. If you are in Canada, and you wish to speak to a counsellor about this, contact Parent Help Line, 1-888-603-9100.

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