Parenting your grieving child, #4: Q&A with the founder of Rainbows, grief support for children

In this post, my friend, Suzy Yehl Marta, founder of Rainbows For All Children (LINK), answers real questions from widowed parents who I know from this blog, from several Facebook pages, and from Twitter.

Suzy originally agreed to write four posts, one for each Tuesday in October, and this is the last of that series. Tell me: would you like to hear more in this format? Has this been helpful to you? Do you have a question to share? Let me know via a comment (below), email (address at right), or on Facebook.

Suzy is the author of “Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope.”  She has been working with grieving children for nearly 30 years. Rainbows has programs for children and teens, ages 3 to 18, in all 50 states and many international sites. Find a program near you by calling 1-800-266-3206. 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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I have a girl age 8 and two boys age 6 and 4. For myself I have noticed an extra set of emotions not that it is coming up to the one year mark, Do kids experience this too? I know time can be a hard concept to grasp at these ages.

The anniversary of the death of a loved one impacts every family member. While your kids are all young, your 4-year-old might not understand the permanence of death at all. However, kids are perceptive and pick up your emotions and listen to your tone of voice or your conversations.

Have you planned a celebration of their Dad on the anniversary? Gather everyone together and ask what they would like to do on this day. Face it head on. Perhaps a dinner of Dad's favorite foods, rent his favorite movie, or a trip to the cemetery to give him "gifts"...pictures they drew, cookies, etc.. Maybe they would like to write a note to their dad, tie it to a string of a helium balloon (you do one also) and together let them go up, up in the air. This can be very symbolic and healing. Let the kids be creative in designing the day.  

My son was 10 and my daughter was 6 when my husband died. They are now 12 and 8. My daughter seems to be doing ok. My son however seems so unhappy. When he is at school with his friends he is happy but when he is home he is so unhappy. How can I help him? He misses his dad so much. They used to do SO much together. I know therapy would be good and he's willing to go. He seems fine after church. So I am trying to go to church every Sunday. But my heart just breaks for him.

The death of a parent is such a searing pain to youngsters. Keep in mind, it takes years for children to wind through their grief, as the loss is reopened at their various benchmarks of maturity. It seems as if your children are handling the death in their own ways. While your daughter seems okay that does not mean she is not still struggling with the death. And your son has real reason to be sad.

As parents we want our children to be happy and enjoy their childhood. But sadness is also part of a healthy range of emotions and it's important for them to understand that these feelings are normal. While therapy could be helpful for both of the kids, a good first step is to find an outlet to meet with their peers who have had a loved one die and the opportunity to talk about their feelings and concerns in a comfortable setting.

You may find it really helpful to all of you if you can talk with your children about the death - separately and together. Perhaps you can call it "Daddy Time." As the parent, you will want to learn as much as you can about what they are feeling, believing, and needing. It is a rare child that will say they want to talk about their parent's death, it is our responsibility as parents to open the doors of conversation.

In my book, “Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope,”  I devote an entire chapter to conversation starters and activities you can do at home with your kids or riding in the car. It is most helpful if you are able to take the sting and fear out of talking about the death, the loss you share, and the all the feelings associated with it. Once you become comfortable with the discussions, they will too, and while it will still pain you to see them hurting, you'll also see them grow.

Your son and daughter both may also benefit from having another adult to hang out with. Think about family members, neighbors and family friends you can ask to do some of things he and his Dad did. Some single parents find this kind of support through their church or with the parents of their child's friends.

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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! There are just a few days left.

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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