Managing Grief as a Family
Trigger warning: this article contains topics of death and grief. This may be emotionally difficult to read in some spots, so come back later if this isn't a good day to read this piece.
This year, as my family experienced loss due to COVID with my father-in-law - I realized how ill-equipped I felt to help my children, husband, and mother-in-law through the process of grieving. It made me reflect on losses I’ve experienced in the past, and how at those times a lot of the trauma of unexpected loss can be pushed aside in our society.
I asked Kate Lannan, a licensed social worker and the Community Services Director at A Haven located in Exton, Pennsylvania to share some of her tips and resources for managing grief.
Kate’s Tips for Grieving Families
1. Remember that grieving is a normal part of life
At A Haven, the most important thing that we hope to impart to families is that grief is a normal part of life and something that we will ALL experience over the course of our lifetimes. How we as adults respond to loss and grief lays a foundation for how the children in our lives learn to respond. One of the single most important factors in determining how a child responds to grief is how the caregivers around them respond. When we can respond by demonstrating resilience, children who are watching learn to do the same.
2. It’s okay to feel a full range of emotions
Part of demonstrating resilience is allowing ourselves to feel the full range of emotions that arise in response to death - as anyone who is grieving knows, grief contains far more than just sadness. Modeling for children that it is okay to feel confused, overwhelmed, angry, sad, relieved, hopeful, etc. when someone we love dies helps them to see that those are emotions it is safe for them to feel as well. And more importantly, that it is safe for them to feel those emotions around you - we are sending the message that grief does not have to be hidden or isolating. It is something that we can share and experience together, even if we are feeling different feelings than each other.
3. Even when grieving you can still live and be good to yourself
When we balance the hard feelings and hard days with gentleness and care towards ourselves, we demonstrate that you can both be in your grief and also continue to live and be good to yourself. Speak this out loud! Say to your child, "I had a hard day today, I felt sad and missed our person. I made time to take a walk after lunch and the fresh air helped me feel a bit better. Have you had any hard days lately? Are there any tricks you've learned to help yourself when your grief is big?"
Being explicit about the coping strategies you utilize helps send a message to younger grievers that grief is a journey and we can choose how we respond to it; there are unique and positive coping strategies within reach for all of us, and we can help young people in grief identify what works for them instead of pushing emotions below the surface and turning to adverse coping strategies like drug or alcohol use.
Tips to be there for Someone Experiencing Grief
When someone you know is thrown into grief and you're not sure how to respond, be sure to consider the relationship you had with the person prior to their loss. If you were not in regular contact before the death, it's probably unwise to send frequent texts or bombard the family with concerned phone calls.
Consider sending a handwritten note of condolence instead. Also, refrain from telling people to let you know if they need something. Grief is overwhelming, and new grievers may not have a good sense of what would be helpful. Consider what you feel able to do and then offer specifics - "I'm able to take over mowing your lawn every week this summer, please let me know if that would feel helpful and I'll get started on X date." or "I can handle school pickups through the rest of the year if you and your children would be comfortable with that."
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, don't forget about these families! Many grievers say that the period of time 6-8 months following a loss is the most difficult. The adrenaline from the days following the death has worn off, and much of the emotional and logistical support that people offered initially has tapered off. This leaves grieving families feeling exhausted and alone. Set a calendar alert to remind yourself to check in with them around this time, and consider other calendar reminders for death anniversaries or other significant days so that you can let people know that you have not forgotten about them.
For Additional Information
If you or a member of your family is experiencing grief after a loss, A Haven offers some resources to help you and your loved ones cope. If you need more support consider joining a virtual support group or reaching out to start your own.
If you or your family have been through a recent loss, how did you manage? Share what has worked for you in the comments to inspire others to work through their grief in a positive way.