Life after death: What Next?
Given the 4.2 million deaths that have been caused by Covid-19 around the globe, there are many families left wondering about the 'best' way to deal with deaths when they impact children and young people.
There are lots of great advice that helps us understand the importance of the language we use, the environment we provide and the ways in which we can nurture and support children and young people in the days after a significant death. However, responding to death doesn't start and end with our delivery message and understanding how we can understand death in the weeks and months that follow can be more difficult.
What do we do when it feels like our children are trapped in a cycle of grief and bereavement? How can we help children and young people when understanding death seems impossible and moving on feels unfair?
1. Allow every emotion
Often we can be unconsciously prescriptive when we support children as they grieve. We tend to shape our conversations around stereotypical sadness and a sense of loss we associate with death. However, experiencing death can cause complex emotions including confusion, guilt, fear, loneliness, jealousy and even relief. It's important that we give children and young people the chance to explore and express all the thoughts and feelings that have been caused by death and ensure they have the opportunity to share them through different channels and in different ways.
2. Acknowledge all thoughts
As adults, we realise that people have lots of different beliefs about death and find comfort from a whole variety of thoughts. Our usual narrative surrounding death promotes the concept of (some form of) life after death and suggests that the spirit of people that have died have some influence or bearing on our day to day lives. For children and young people, these messages can be incredibly confusing and can often lead to complex emotional distress and problematic mental health. When children don't understand things, it is almost impossible for them to initiate conversations or explain how they feel so as adults it is important that you lead and introduce the themes they might be struggling with. For example, it can be useful to acknowledge some typical beliefs or sayings surrounding death, like 'when Robins appear, lost loved ones are here'. What does that mean to children, what questions does it create and what can it offer both in terms of support and risk to mental health.
3. Facilitate snowball awareness
When we experience death, it can be useful to think that life has thrown us a snowball. A snowball that is painful and will leave a scar. A snowball that we may have to hold on to for quite a while until it begins to melt and one that we may remember holding on to forever. Having a snowball thrown at you, particularly when it is unexpected is hard and it hurts. Yet, it is important that children and young people understand that the snowball that has been thrown at them can get bigger and more difficult to melt if we make decisions that cause further harm to ourselves or others. It can be useful to shape conversations around the snowball; what happens to it if we miss school or break the rules or are horrible to our friends? What happens to the snowball if we bottle up our thoughts and hide our feelings?
4. Promote conscious choices
When we look at the way grief and bereavement are portrayed in the media, it can be easy to see how children and young people could assume that reckless behaviour is the most effective way to communicate our pain. - with the most reckless and destructive behaviours communicating the greatest amount of pain and suffering. It would be easy to understand why young people might think it is normal to rely on drugs and alcohol as they respond to death when so many people role model this behaviour and it is easy to see why many children think it is natural to respond to death with challenging an destructive behaviours when we consciously consider how we portray the grieving process in the media. It is important that we give children an alternative narrative and a different example of grieving. It is important that we help them make choices by discussing our thoughts, behaviours, feelings and the short and long term consequences of the way we choose to grieve.
5. Offer positive alternatives
As with most things in life, our children are likely to do what we do rather than do what we say and it is important that we become positive role models for our grieving children. Lead by example and promote vulnerability, explore all emotions and adapt regular interactions that allow you to monitor and understand your child's emotional resilience and mental health. Where possible, share positive thoughts and opportunities to grieve in safe and healthy ways, together.
At Individed, we promote the use of a 'traffic light' system where children regularly share their mental health traffic light and help their family and friends better understand how they might think, feel and behave when their warning light is red, amber or green and have a variety of resources within our emotional well being assessment that can help children better understand their emotions and communicate their needs.
Feel free to get in touch for more information.