Separation and Loss
All children appear to harbor some degree of fundamental and primitive terror that something catastrophic might happen to their caregivers and that without their caregivers' protection and care they themselves might die. So when a loss or death occurs, it is best if the news comes from the adults to whom a child feels closest -- whether parents, foster parents or other caregivers.
Access to someone with whom the child shares an ongoing history of trustworthiness, concern and involvement is an important buffer during crisis or change and reassures the child that he or she is not alone, that there are other people available to provide protection and vital caretaking.
How Should I Tell My Child?
If the loss entails the departure of a parent -- whether because of a new job assignment, parental separation, serious illness, or incarceration -- it is best for both parents to tell the news together, so that the child has the chance to understand that everyone is involved in what is happening and that, regardless of the change, they are still a family.
If the loss is the result of parental conflict -- separation or divorce -- it is particularly important for each parent to take special care to avoid influencing the child's reactions and to do whatever is necessary to reduce the likelihood that the child will feel caught in the middle of a parental conflict that requires choosing a side.
When Should I Tell My Child?
The best way to help children face significant changes or losses is to let them know what is happening as soon as the loss, separation, or change seems definite. When parents try to delay telling the news, they often underestimate how sensitive children are to parental preoccupation and tension.
Telling a child about an impending loss not only prevents the distress and anxiety that may build as the child increasingly wonders what is wrong, but also allows the child to begin to prepare for what lies ahead rather than being caught off guard. The child has a chance to start getting used to the idea, to raise questions and concerns, to participate in the adjustments parents are making, to practice coping skills before they must be called into action and to begin to grieve.
However, there can be problems with direct approaches. Imagine a mother who has only the brief time it will take someone to bring her children home from school to prepare herself to tell them that their father has suddenly died. Reeling with her own shock and grief, it is understandable that she might wish to postpone talking to them, to avoid seeing them, or at least to discourage their expressions of distress. It would be better, however, for her to remember that she need not hide her own pain and strong reactions as long as she makes it clear that the children are not expected to solve her problems or make her feel better.
Her children will be most able to believe this if they know which adult friends and relatives will be helping her, since this is most likely to reassure them that their mother is in good hands.
Helping Children Trust Themselves
Because young children get their understanding of life primarily through their senses, tying news to a sensory or physical connection often helps them grasp it. Such an approach can also reinforce their trust in their own powers of observation.
Talk with children about what they might have seen or heard: "When you heard us fighting, you may have wondered what was happening and felt worried and scared... Today when Aunt Ruth came to get you at school, did you guess that something bad had happened?"
Beginning this way also encourages the child to think, "I am the sort of person who can figure out what is happening." Corroborating what the child has noticed sends one more reassuring signal that the child is a thinking person, able to make sense of the world and therefore able to understand significant happenings. In fact, acknowledging that they have been aware of the adult actions or situations that led up to the loss may help reassure them that it was not their fault.
Allow Children to Question
In some families, children are discouraged from observing, commenting or questioning what is going on with adults, especially their parents. Such children may now need assurance that it is all right for them to have noticed that things were not going well. Consequently, when talking about a loss, you should deliberately relax any unwritten rules that children should not be "nosy" about the affairs of their elders and encourage your children to voice their questions and to confirm their observations.
Helping Children Say Goodbye
After the news of the upcoming loss or change has been introduced and explored, children need to be given the opportunity to say whatever goodbyes are involved. Having the chance to say actual thought-out goodbyes to people, places, or a familiar family structure is among the most healing things a child can experience. Not only do such goodbyes give the child a chance to review and acknowledge the good things that will be lost, but they also allow the child an opportunity to express those feelings face to face with the others who are involved.
Wishes and blessings can be exchanged, and the child can be given loving permission to have a successful, satisfying life. A thoughtful goodbye visit leaves less unfinished business to complicate the grief that follows the loss. Youngsters who do not have the chance to exchange goodbyes or to receive permission to move on sometimes are more likely to sustain additional damage to their basic sense of trust and security, to their self-esteem, and to their ability to initiate and sustain strong relationships.
Remember: when a child suffers a loss, very little about what has happened is none of the child's business. A significant separation or loss definitely is the child's business and needs to be explained as thoroughly as possible to help avoid serious repercussions later.