Conversations with our child(ren) about the death of a loved one can be supportive and comforting. But they can also leave us feeling tired, frustrated, lonely, and even angry, despite others’ best intentions. Uncomfortable emotions–such as sadness, frustration, and loneliness–can be intense and getting these talks “right” can feel daunting. Given that this is a common struggle for caregivers, we’ve outlined a few strategies that will hopefully make the conversations less overwhelming. The goal is to help you cope with your own feelings while teaching your child how to do the same.
Step 1: Label the feeling. It can be as simple as “I felt sad when Aunt Maria said that.” This teaches kids about feelings and improves emotional awareness. This doesn’t always come naturally for many kids (or adults!), so this step of naming feelings is important in helping your child build an emotional vocabulary. The more specific we can be with our feeling words, the better! For example, “I felt lonely at the dinner table” is more specific than “I was upset.” One way to teach your loved ones how to do this is to post a list of feeling words on the family refrigerator or incorporate a discussion about feelings into a daily family activity (e.g., “Name a time you felt excited today”).
Step 2: Make room for more than one feeling. It’s important to let your loved ones know that sometimes you might be feeling more than one emotion–like sad and relieved–after talking with a friend about the person who died. This is completely normal and a great opportunity to teach your loved ones about the complexity of feelings and how we can feel multiple things at one time. When this happens, use the word “and” to describe both emotions, which highlights that they can coexist.
Step 3: Name a reason for the feeling. After labeling the emotion, it’s important to express why you’re feeling that way if possible. “I felt very hurt when you changed the subject while I was talking about the funeral.” This strategy expands kids’ emotional awareness to not only learn what they are feeling, but why they are feeling it. This validates the emotion, which sends us the message that what we’re feeling is okay– because it is! Learning what kind of events bring up certain feelings is a powerful tool in preparing for and coping with strong feelings. For example, learning that Father’s Day leads to sadness and anger can help a child prepare a coping plan for when those emotions arise.
Step 4: Model healthy coping. Healthy coping can look very different from person to person and can include anything that helps us feel better without making the situation worse. For some, coping skills such as distractions (TV, music), exercise and movement (going for a walk), social support (texting a friend), and productivity (washing dishes) can help reduce our emotional distress. For others, directly addressing the issue or event that caused emotions may be more effective (like speaking up to your Aunt Maria and telling her how you feel). Communicating to others what you are experiencing and setting boundaries can be a wonderful and healthy coping strategy. Modeling this for your child can teach them how to express themselves with peers and adults in their life.
Step 5: Practice patience with yourself. Given that experiencing uncomfortable emotions can be so challenging, it’s important to be patient with yourself as you navigate these complex feelings and moments with your child. Sometimes we get stuck in perfectionistic and black-or-white thinking (“I wish I knew the right thing to say”); this leads to high expectations for ourselves and others and can leave us feeling disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated, etc.
Because we’re human, we’re bound to make mistakes and we learn through trial and error. In fact, we can think of these “oops” moments as powerful teaching moments for you and your child! So when you notice that you’re being hard on yourself, we recommend three steps: 1) pause and catch that thought (“Ugh I shouldn’t have said that”), 2) remind yourself that you are doing the best you can, and 3) jump back in the ring to try again (“next time I will say this instead).” Of course, if you know the better thing to say now, go tell the person.
Coping with intense feelings and grief can be challenging but you are not alone. These steps can be a guide on how to cope in a meaningful way and model this for your child. And remember: there is no “right” way to navigate this grief journey. We’re all doing the best we can!
Stephanie Rohrig, Ph.D. is the Clinical Director of Experience Camps for girls in Georgia. She’s also a clinical psychologist from New York City, a runner, yoga instructor, and a full-time mom to a sweet and spunky little girl. She first joined the Experience Camps team as a clinician in Maine in 2019 and has loved being a part of such a meaningful and fun-loving community. For Stephanie, being a part of campers’ and staffs’ “best week ever” and helping people connect over their grief experience has been a great honor and joy.