Dear Dr. Meg,
My son-in-law died last night in a car crash. The children are 6 (a son) and 8 (a daughter). How can we best help them???
Words cannot express how sorry I am for you with the loss of your son-in-law. I have experienced sudden tragedy and have had parents in my practice who have been in your same situation. There is no easy route through this but I can share with you some of the ways other parents and grandparents have helped children cope with tragedy.
Breaking shocking news to children is terribly difficult and must be done gently. The best thing for the children is to have an adult who is very close to them bring the news. It may be a mother, grandmother or other family member. If that person is you, sit very close to the children and tell them that you has something very sad to say. Then very simply explain what happened. Do not go into detail that would make the pain greater (ie., the details of the car accident that are frightening.)
Some children will cry, others may run out of the room and still others may appear not to react at all. Each of these responses is normal. Wait for the children to ask questions or even sit with them if they say nothing. Never rush this time. It is perfectly appropriate for the adults in the room to cry so don’t hold tears back. Let the children know that you are hurting too. If, however, you or someone else is truly despondent or hysterical, someone else should handle the children because these behaviors really frighten them.
After the initial shock has subsided, it is very important to reassure the children that they will be OK. Many fear that they, their mother or grandparents will die too. This is normal. While you don’t know what the future holds, it is perfectly appropriate to tell the children that you or another close adult will care for them. Reiterate this frequently because with their father gone, they will feel as though their safety and security is at risk. Some feel as though their world has collapsed and don’t know how they will cope.
Children, like adults, need hope in order to get through tragedies and as a one who loves and believes in God and heaven, I try to communicate to those who are hurting that God will help. If children ask why God made (or allowed) the accident to happen, simply say that you don’t know. But reassure them that God will help. Don’t be preachy or quote scripture or anything else. Just reassure them that God hurts too and that He is good.
They should go to the funeral at these ages because this is an important part of the grieving process. If their mother is absorbed in her own grief, then you as the grandmother must be emotionally and physically available for the children. Take them places, read to them, put them to bed. This allows their mother to have her own grieving period and it comforts the kids too. Try to keep a similar routine to the one before the tragedy at home because this helps them feel safe. Most importantly, be emotionally and physically available for the children over the ensuing months. They will need to lean on someone whom they feel is safe and who can handle their feelings. Often children try to protect their mothers from hurting more so they hide their feelings from her. You, however, can be the person that they won’t worry about and who can offer full support without causing them worry.
As they recover, talk about their father. Ask the children what they think their dad would have done, liked, etc in certain situations. Many adults worry that this will make the children feel badly but it won’t. They are thinking about their dad and avoiding bringing up his name makes the children feel lonely and odd for thinking about him. Don’t overdo this, but keep their father in the conversations. This will help their grief.
Many parents ask if they should take the children to a counselor. There is no hard and fast answer. I tell parents to pay close attention to the children’s moods and behaviors and watch for the normal progression of the grief process. If, at any time, the process looks like it is getting “stuck” then taking them to a counselor may help. Here are some signs of healthy grief progression that you can look for:
First stage of grief: child will cry frequently or even become withdrawn, have sleep difficulties and not want to go to school. Or, he may be angry and lash out at the person he feels most comfortable with (usually mom.) This will last for several months. Acknowledge is feelings but try to help him keep a regular routine.
Second stage of grief: The child may still cry or have anger outbursts but they will be less frequent. Between periods of sadness or anger, the child will show interest in friends, playing, going to friends’ homes, etc. The child may not want to talk about the deceased parent at all. This may hurt their mother’s feelings because she fears that they will forget about their father. She should not force the kids to talk about their dad.
Third stage: The child may become more comfortable talking about their father but he will feel more distant and this will bother their mother. At your grandchildren’s ages, time feels very different. One month to them may feel like six months to you. They may have residual fears about dying- either that their mother or they will die. They may have some sleep problems and want to come into their mother’s room to sleep. I would let them if they are sad or frightened.
Final stage of grief: The children talk about their father in a comfortable manner and refer to him in the past tense. This is troubling for mothers but it is perfectly normal for children. If the child had school troubles following the death, they should be resolving. His grades should improve and interest in playing, friends, sports, etc., should be back to normal.
How long should all of this take? This varies according to the age of the child (the younger the child, the quicker the resolution in general) and very importantly, these stages will go faster if the child had a healthy relationship with the deceased parent. If the child had a painful or volatile relationship with the deceased, he is more likely to progress more slowly through the stages or get “stuck” in one stage. So, if you see a child not moving forward in the grief process after several months or at least one year, counseling may really help.
It is important to state that these are guidelines only. Every child is different and almost any behavior is normal. Each child processes pain differently but I want to encourage you that every child can be helped through the pain and move past it. Your grandchildren and daughter will get through this terrible tragedy with the consistent love and support that you and friends offer.
One final word. The best help that you or their mother can give the children is to get help for yourselves. Children carry their parents’ pain. If their mother progresses through her grief in a healthy manner, then the children will do the same. If, however, she can’t, then the children will have a much harder time resolving their own grief and moving forward. God Bless you all.
Sincerely, Dr. Meg