How Do You Help a Child Who Is Grieving?

Counseling grief is difficult because you can’t fix what’s wrong.  You can’t bring back the dead or break a parent out of jail,  bring a brother back from active military, or sober up a child’s mother and make her come back to the family.  Children have little control over their environment, and yet they have to deal with so much pain and suffering and are still expected to behave well and learn deeply.

A friend of mine recently shared the pain she felt from losing a child; she said everyone around her was avoiding the conversation or would skirt it in such a way as to leave her loss unacknowledged. I don’t think anyone was maliciously avoiding talking her about her loss. I just don’t think anyone really knows what to say to someone who is grieving.

We want to comfort others because it hurts us to see them hurt—especially for those we love, but we can’t make it better or take away their pain. Sometimes, we try to distract the person grieving, like my student’s grandmother who offers to take her shopping when she cries about missing her mother. Others try to soothe the person grieving by reminding them of what they do have as though another child or the chance to “try again” could replace the life of another. Very rarely do you find someone willing to be in pain with another and look them in the eye as their world is crumbling.

“This is me and my mom.”

The day after my friend shared how others unintentionally botch dealing with the bereaved, I had my chance to counsel a young boy whose father died many years ago. After months of working together, he opened up by drawing about his father’s death. He tried to get the tears just right
on four different pieces of paper .

I thought of my friend and what she’d taught me about grief—that people need you to validate their experience. I looked at the little boy in front of me and said, “Your father died when you were only a year old. You didn’t really know your father, but you miss him and wonder what your life would have been like if he had lived. You are mad that no one will talk to you about him or tell you about him.” I waited. He looked me square in the eye and exhaled as though a weight had been lifted. I saw him; I acknowledged his pain.

The same night that I met with this little boy, I ran across Nora McInerny’s beautiful TedTalk on grief in which she makes the distinction between “moving on” and “moving forward.”  McInerny says that “We don’t ‘move on’ from grief.  We move forward with it.” This quote so eloquently articulates what I have been wrestling with as a counselor for years; there isn’t ever a “happy ending” but there can be another chapter, and I can help others find a way forward to their next chapter.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”  It seems impossible to try to make meaning out of a tragic situation.  To make meaning by projecting yourself forward into the future in which you are looking back on that moment of pain and say, “I learned from my pain, and without that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”  

How do you ever make sense of the loss of a child?  In my own way, I am trying to make sense of my friend’s loss, the deep sadness that I feel for the life she didn’t get to have.  I will tell myself that maybe it was to teach me to give grief a name.  To learn that people need you to say the grief out loud.  To acknowledge the full weight of their loss.  To sit with them while they cry without changing the subject or trying to “fix” them.  To be with them as they are in that moment and give them a shoulder to cry on.