Parenting your grieving child, #2: Q&A with the founder of Rainbows, grief support for children

Suzy Yehl Marta is here answering your questions about parenting the grieving child. You can read the first post here. Her organization, Rainbows For All Children, has been working with grieving children in every state in the U.S. as well as internationally for more more than 27 years. Rainbows has programs for children and teens, ages 3 to 18. Find a site near you by calling 1-800-266-3206.

Suzy is also the author of “Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope.” 

This is the second of four posts by Suzy – one for each Tuesday in October. Questions were selected from those submitted by widowed parents on my Widowed Village page on Facebook. You can “like” that page at right, and ask your own question here.

Suzy and I created this series in response to your many requests for information and support. Please see my note at the bottom of the post for details on how you can take a minute or two this month to “vote” online and gain financial support for Rainbows.

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How do I explain death to a 4-year-old? Are there any good books out there that will help? I've found several support groups for my older son, but NO ONE in our area offers these kinds of groups to small children, so not only is he confused about the death of his father, but he's now feeling left out, cause mommy and brother have a "meeting" and he doesn't!

Grief support for pre-schoolers is rare. It seems as if society feels that since the kids are not talking, they are doing just fine. We know this is not true.

Explaining death to a pre-schooler is heart rending. Complicating the emotional turmoil, a child that young simply cannot comprehend the complexity of the death of their Dad. Since you are unable to find a support group for your son, create one of your own within the family. Set aside a special time every week when you both can be alone. You can even name your special time, such as “ Sharing Time.”

All things in life to a 4 year old are black and white. So when you explain death, it must be simple – the heart stops beating or Daddy is not hungry anymore. The best way to open the conversation is to ask what your child wants to talk about. If he is hesitant, you could say that you are missing his dad. Or something specific like, “Your Dad made the best pancakes and I wish I knew how to make them.” Take the lead from your son. Sometimes he might dive into the conversation and others he might want to talk about school or a television show. Each Sharing Time does not have to be heavy but rather they are building blocks of trust, so when he is ready to talk or ask a question he will feel comfortable enough to do so.

Children cannot sustain the intensity of grief so they will grieve in spasms. It comes and goes. So in the middle of what you would think is a great conversation, he might stop abruptly and say he is going out to play. Hug him and encourage him to go. However, keep in mind what you both were talking about so the next time you are together, you can lead with that topic. The questions you want answered to help you understand and support your son during this grieving time are: What is he thinking, believing, feeling and needing, and it can take some time to draw these out.

My organization, Rainbows has a program, SunBeams, for kids aged 3 to 5. Find a site near you by calling 1-800-266-3206. Children at this age may also appreciate a terrific program put together by Sesame Street called “When Families Grieve.” Preview the materials (and family activities) online, or order your DVD kit (includes supplemental materials) through Rainbows or the Fresh Widow blog (email address at right).

Read the other posts in this series:
October 5, #1
October 19, #3
Or ask your own question.

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How you can help support Rainbows programs
Rainbows For All Children is participating in the Pepsi Refresh campaign. From Oct. 1 to 31, log on to the Pepsi Refresh web site and vote for Rainbows every day. And please help spread the word! With $250,000 from the Pepsi Refresh Project, Rainbows will:
  • Provide emotional support to 2,500 youth through 100 new sites nationwide
  • Help children and youth strengthen problem-solving and coping skills
  • Improve communication in their families and peer relationships
  • Prevent destructive behaviors including violence and substance abuse.

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