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Building resilience by normalizing grief and loss

As far as difficult conversations go, talking about death with our kids is up there with the birds and the bees. We would much prefer to focus on the positive things and gloss over the difficult and devastating ones. Normalizing grief and loss in everyday life builds our kids’ grief literacy, so that when death happens (as it inevitably does), or when the child at school is diagnosed with cancer, or a tragedy happens in the neighbourhood, our children are prepared with a baseline of information and coping strategies that support their resilience in the face of loss. Here are some tips for normalizing grief and loss at home:

Notice it.

The dead bird at the playground, or our preschooler squishing ants on the sidewalk aren’t exactly our favourite teachable moments, but these are useful times to pause and acknowledge death in everyday life. Letting children stop and observe, explore and ask questions helps their growing understanding of life and death, and is a relatively neutral way to learn about biological lifetimes. From falling leaves to budding trees, nature offers myriad opportunities to witness the life cycle in action.

Talk about it.

Were you devastated when your best friend moved away in fourth grade? Did you cry for a week when your first pet died? Talk about it! Sharing your own experiences of loss with your kids builds connection and normalizes difficult childhood experiences. Talking about loss builds grief literacy by giving kids the language to express their thoughts and feelings about difficult things. Acknowledging all loss, including the “small” losses that occur in everyday life, such as moving houses, changing schools, missing friends over summer vacation, or being separated from family members, is important for building resilience and capacity to cope. Lastly, it can be tempting to avoid it, but if you can, involve your kids when you notice the floating fish in the tank, or the pet hamster at the end of its short life. These first experiences with death offer a chance to talk about grief, name feelings, and model end-of-life rituals that are important to your family or culture.

Feel it.

We don't want to talk about grief, and that makes perfect sense. We often have our own unresolved feelings of grief that threaten to bubble up. When we are overwhelmed with our own emotions we're not able to handle anyone else's. That is totally normal. Most of us grew up in environments where grief was just not talked about. We also live in a society that rewards hiding our feelings and pushing through! But, if you have an authentic emotional reaction when talking about your grief, try not to hide it. Children are learning about grief and what it means to share feelings. Being honest about how you feel is an incredibly valuable learning experience. Go ahead and model what it means to express feelings, name feelings, and take care of yourself when difficult feelings arise.

Express it.

When big feelings show up, help your kids to express them. Each child has their own style or activities that they are drawn to. Having a handful of ideas to “practice” with before grief strikes, can be useful. Anger is a great one to paint, write about, or to fuel a slapshot in the driveway. Pillow fights and trampolines can help too. Introspective kids might draw or read, ride bikes or walk in nature to move feelings. Learning what helps us to cope with our everyday emotions helps us to know ourselves better and gives us practice in taking care of ourselves, building a strong foundation of emotional intelligence.

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