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Parents make `space' for children's feelings. Help for grief-stricken kids: openness, honesty, spiritual support

IN children's experience whenever there's a death - of a pet, a parent or grandparent, a friend or sibling - help is often needed for them to cope in the very most constructive way possible. How can parents and other adults lend a hand?

Here are six possibilities, but each family will find answers in its own special way, and according to its own particular religious view:

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Do a lot of ``hugging.''

There are few therapies as good as love. To know that this affection continues, in one form or the other, may not take the place of the individual who's gone, but it can help a lot.

Encourage talking.

Children, like adults, sometimes need to discover how to express their feelings. Otherwise, they may develop inaccurate feelings of guilt and self-blame for a death.

One mother, widowed suddenly and left with two children, aged 2 and 4, encouraged the four-year-old.

``To my horror,'' she writes, ``I learned that my son felt his father died because he was `naughty.' I held my son in my arms and told him that Daddy's death had nothing to do with the son's behavior. Daddy loved him just the way he was, and I loved him just the way he was.

``It's excruciatingly difficult to see your child struggling with such feelings, but you must allow them to express them.''

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If a young person does not initiate a discussion, one can be stimulated by parents' using statements, such as:

``Did your friend's death upset you?'' ``How did you feel after the funeral?'' ``Death can be very difficult.'' Also, if there is a problem in eating or sleeping, one can raise the question: ``Are you having some difficulty because of so-and-so's death?''

Be honest.

Children are very intuitive and sensitive to body language and other nonverbal signals. They will know if words do not match emotions and physical expressions.

Nancy O'Connor, a PhD and author of ``Letting Go With Love,'' says children as well as adults want ``reality and truth, sincerity and honesty. Phoniness is confusing and energy-draining.''

Be specific.

Answer only those questions that the child actually asks. Volunteering information about death can overwhelm a child. Use the deceased person's name when referring to him or her, and possibly the word ``die'' to convey the message.

For those who believe in life beyond, the term ``pass on'' may more accurately express their beliefs and the sense of eternal life they want to convey to their children, as long as children understand what is meant.

Avoid euphemisms.

In attempting to soften the blow, adults are tempted to refer to one who has died as ``sleeping,'' ``gone away,'' or ``lost.'' While adults are able to decipher such messages, children are sometimes left confused and even frightened by them.

If a person is sleeping, a child fully expects him or her to wake up. When the deceased doesn't, the child may become afraid to sleep for fear that he or she will not awaken, either.

If one who has died is ``gone away'' or ``lost,'' the child will anticipate the time when the person returns or is found.

One woman, who was 9 when her aunt died, recalls listening to the eulogy where death was described as the ``passing of a season.'' Throughout winter the little girl waited patiently and expectantly for her aunt to return in the spring.

Show feelings.

It's normal for adults to express love and sadness, hope and loss, joy and pain. Adults are role models for children. If they show their grief, children will feel free to express feelings.

Based upon personal experience, one mother states: ``Don't be afraid to cry in front of children. They must know that it's OK to cry. After all, we cry for those we loved very much.

``Our tears are a tribute to the depth of that love. If we did not love, we would not feel the need to cry. It may help to cry together. Hold each other, but don't pressure the child to express his feelings.''

Read together.

Selecting a book or booklet appropriate to the age level of the child may be one way to enrich understanding for both the reader and the listener.

Most public libraries carry a wide variety of materials on life and death in both the children and adult sections. Religious materials may well be of special help.

Allow time for discussion and questions following the reading. Be careful not to read several books at one time on the subject, lest the child be overwhelmed. Reading one book or several times over many days, is the better approach.

Children are very resilient and face difficulties with great strength. It's quite rare for a child to be seriously traumatized by coping with death.

Warm family and spiritual support, as well as careful attention to children's feelings - along with cultivating and providing ``space'' to talk - are generally enough for them to deal with death and move on more positively in the affairs of life.

For another perspective on this subject, see ``To Comfort Another'' on The Home Forum, Page 31.

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