Parenting through grief and loss can be one of our greatest challenges, especially when it can be so hard for us. All of us parents wish they could shelter their child from grief. No one wants their child, with limited experience and understanding, to have to suffer through the loss of a beloved dog or the death of a treasured parent or grandparent. Especially with young children who may not understand what is going on, support and communication is very important. As parents we need to be their for our kids and let them know they are not suffering alone.
But real life does include the possibility of such things and children grow up healthiest when they're taught to face reality. How they confront facts can be influenced, positively or negatively, by what they observe from their parents, along with their parents words.
Feelings of sadness at the loss of an important value is a natural, even healthy, reaction. Degrees and style will both vary, of course. But the extremes of stoical 'stiff upper lip' or severe, long-term depression may signal an unhealthy message to children.
Reactions to loss from children will naturally vary with age. Very young children are rarely able to grasp the permanence or even the disvalue of the loss. Children from around 5-10 will look carefully to parents as a mirror for their own feelings. Older children may even rebel against painful feelings and claim not to feel sadness.
In every case, it's helpful for parents to allow children to honestly acknowledge any feelings they have. They should not be made to feel guilty for spontaneous feelings.
Along with age differences, variations in inborn temperament and (externally influenced or self-)developed personality among individuals will produce a range of reactions. Any initial feelings are legitimate and generally healthy.
A healthy personality gradually passes through those feelings. Life brings new values, along with the recognition that even when one irreplaceable value is lost, not all values are thereby lost.
Individuals will vary in how long they take to undergo the process. Some lingering feelings may last months or years. But there is a large difference between sober reflection and depression. Helping children to see value in the former and to avoid the latter will require inculcating realism.
The risk of great loss is inherent in living. Parents, too, will differ in how they react when that risk becomes fact. When they demonstrate an attitude that displays to the child an honest evaluation of the loss, they do their child a service. When they help the child to experience those feelings without guilt or repression they are benefiting their child.
But parents can inadvertently disrupt or retard the return to a normal, self-confident approach to daily living by embracing the false alternatives of too lightly dismissing the loss and excessive emphasis on it.
Dismissing the loss, which the child may see as significant, can lead to repression. The child disowns feelings he or she naturally has. Alternatively, he or she may learn to attach little or no value to any life, even those close to them. The attendant negative consequences are obvious.
Alternatively, when the parent fails to move through the feelings, the child may feel guilty at their naturally-paced recovery. Or, they may feel inclined to be 'stuck' as the parent is. Neither is helpful to parent or child.
It is during such periods of sadness and grief that it is hardest to retain the outlook that life still offers the possibility of significant values. But it is also the time when that realization is most needed, for the parent's sake and that of the child.