Dealing With Grief – We Need to Talk about Difficult Subjects with our Kids
Last week I was touched by a soul I had never met and the dignity and bravery of his family who opened their hearts to their community to share in the celebration of his life.
I never personally knew the 16 year old boy, whose funeral it was, but as his story unfolded through pictures, videos and poignant memories of family and friends I felt his presence. Despite their grief they spoke candidly and honestly of the ups and the downs and I could see amongst the many friends gathered a recognition of the young man they had known and loved. As heartbreakingly painful as it was to be there mourning a life cut too short, it was also I think a fitting tribute to something very dear to this boy, and that was to help people. He wanted adults to understand better how to communicate with young people, especially teenagers experiencing the challenges of growing up. I think he would have been proud of how his family and friends reached out to each other on that beautiful, crisp, autumn, sunshiny day.
With these this in mind, I would like to share some thoughts and suggestions about talking about grief and loss with your children and other difficult or challenging subjects, as well as where to get further advice and support in Luxembourg.
Be Honest and Open
Sometimes as parents we worry about the maturity and sensitivity of our children to cope with difficult subjects including loss and grief. We may want to preserve their ‘innocence’ or maybe we don’t think they will understand. We are afraid of hurting or confusing them further. We do not know what to say so we avoid saying anything at all. As they get older we worry that by openly talking about things like mental health, sex and sexuality, bullying and being a bystander, drugs and alcohol we might somehow introduce ‘ideas into their heads’. Some subjects may still feel taboo in our families or communities and we are afraid that by breaking the silence we may do more harm than good.
But today as parents and trusted adults we have a responsibility to break the silence on talking honestly and openly about these subjects. This is because if we don’t take the time to discuss these things there are a plethora of sources our children will receive information from. Sources that we have no control over, from the school playground to their favorite Youtuber. By not openly discussing these subjects in a safe and loving environment like the home, we are robbing our children of the chance to experience and explore the reality of the world they live in. By ‘not talking about it in front of the children’, we do not recognise the importance of preparing them for the inevitable losses they will experience in their lifetimes.
But What are Difficult or Challenging Subjects?
Every person and family will have their own set of difficult or challenging subjects to talk about. These things are often avoided or even ignored in everyday conversations. It may be surprising to know, but children have been shown to be sensitive to these omissions from very young age, and will quickly pick up on what subjects are ‘taboo’ from the social conditioning in families and communities. Often talking about these subjects can lead to feelings of shame or ‘not belonging’ and because this may be working on an unconscious- level we may not be even aware of the subjects we avoid. Unfortunately, this is backed up by some of our most treasured myths around talking openly about difficult subjects for example talking about loss and grief.
The Myths around discussing Grief and Loss
James & Friedman (Grief Recovery Handbook 1998) identified 5 ways that people react when confronted with someone dealing with grief and loss in Western society today.
Denial ‘Don’t feel bad’
Move on ‘Replace the loss’
Don’t make a fuss ‘Grieve alone’
You’ll get over it ‘Just give it time’
And deny your reality ‘Be strong for others’
With messages like these underlying our everyday perceptions about how adults or children should deal with the confusing, and often conflicting feelings they may be experiencing, it is no wonder that talking openly about these subjects is so difficult.
So How Do We Talk Openly About Difficult Subjects
The most important step we can take as parents and trusted adults is to get clear about our own beliefs, thoughts and feelings around these subjects. In our Passage parents’ support group, we have used a particular exercise to help parents identify their own difficult or challenging subjects to talk about. We start with a subject like bullying, self-harm, sex or drugs and put it central in a circle on a landscape plain piece of paper. Then we invite parents on their own (as homework) to create a mind-map of all their thoughts and feelings about this subject. We invite them to be entirely honest – they will not be asked to share anything they do not want to share.
Sometimes it helps to think of these things in categories like ‘what do I think about these subjects on a physical, emotional, psychological, social and/or spiritual level’. This exercise can help parents to explore possibly difficult or challenging subject for themselves. Do they have strong views or feelings? Where did these feelings come from? Are these thoughts or feelings helpful or unhelpful when talking to their children? By acknowledging that a subject is difficult for them to talk about they can decide on whether they need more information or support to work on this area. By bringing their own ‘stuff’ into consciousness and owning it, they can choose whether to let it hinder or help conversations with their children. We would then encourage parents to share with their partner. It’s amazing how many parents have never had this conversation with each other let alone with their children.
Starting the Conversation with your Children
The best advice to any parent is start early. Our children are learning from us everyday from the moment they emerge into this world. They learn not only by what we say directly to them but also by what we say with our bodies, our gestures and all the conversations they overhear. Although a young child may not understand complex subjects like grief or death, they generally understand what it is to be attached to something and lose it. It is always possible to work from where a child is in their understanding and there are plenty of resources to help us today. One of the concerns of parents is that if we start talking to our children openly about subjects like sex and drugs we may encourage children to experiment too early or at all. But research has shown that if we give children age appropriate information e.g. starting with young children’s curiosity about their own bodies, they are much more likely to trust and turn to us later with deeper and more intimate concerns.
There are several ways you might start preparing for a conversation about difficult or challenging subjects with your child. These include:
• Take the time to think about what subjects you may find yourself sensitive to discussing. Do your homework, create a mind-map, or list of all your beliefs, thoughts and feelings on these subjects. If possible discuss it with your partner or a trusted adult friend.
• Read up on child-appropriate resources including books, websites, and games. Talk to other parents, share ideas, ask questions.
• If you don’t know the answer to a question then why not ‘google’ it together. This way you can model how you sort information from possible disinformation. There are some suggested websites at the end of the article. You can of course do a practice ‘google’ ahead.
• Be ready for inevitable questions that might come out of the blue. For example if you come across a used needle in the park, a sanitary products waste bin in the public toilets, a condom machine. It is always best to answer questions in the moment however, you can suggest talking about it later. But always follow through, kids are particularly good at picking up on avoidance.
• Try not to schedule ‘The Conversation’ about any subject with your child. This puts a lot of pressure on you both and to be honest feels contrived or false to children above a certain age. It is better to break it down into smaller chats. That way you can also take time to check their understanding of a subject beyond playground banter or text book answers.
• Find help. Many parents today feel isolated from extended families and find it hard to ask for guidance or advice about dealing with their children especially when living in a foreign country. Services like Kanner Jugend Telefon offer confidential and anonymous help in English online as well as a helpline in French, German or Luxembourgish.
Finally having the conversation, pay attention but don’t crash
When a subject comes up or you decide it’s time to start a conversation it is important to plan a time when you can give your full attention without interruption. This means setting the intention to actively listen to what your child has to say. Active listening is a skill. You might ask your child an open question about what they know or have been told about a subject then you listen.
You listen without interruption except may to say ‘what do you think/feel about that?’ or ‘tell me more’. Listening happens with the whole of our bodies. We can listen with the way we sit opposite a person or even beside a person with open arms and relaxed gestures. We can listen with the way we look at a person. We can even show we are listening by simply nodding and using encouragements like ‘I see’ and ‘yes’. The purpose of listening like this is to check in with what they know, are already thinking or feeling about the subject and hopefully get them to open up. Only when you think they have fully expressed their understanding, concerns or basically shared what they know is the time to share your own understanding, concerns and knowledge.
But often these subjects seem to come up at the most inconvenient times, whilst out shopping in Auchan, or visiting in-laws or simply while you are occupied driving. It may be tempting to ignore or change the subject but this is when it really helps to be prepared. Questions around these subjects deserve your full attention so it is genuinely OK to say something like ‘that’s a very interesting subject lets discuss it later. When would be a good time for us to do that?’. Which then gives you time breathe and to reach out to other parents because we’ve all been there.
A Final Note to Parents of Teenagers
Teenagers often go through a phase when it feels awkward or uncomfortable to open up to parents. This is normal and why it is suggested you start early with these conversations. Sometimes it can be easier for them to talk to another trusted adult in your family or community. But don’t give up on your teen. We suggest a ‘teen date night’ once a month where you share in an agreed activity one-to-one. Teens seem to find it easier to open up when they don’t feel pressured and the shared experience helps to keep communication channels open for if, and when they need it.
For More Information and Support in Luxembourg and Beyond
If you are concerned about your child or have any questions about parenting in Luxembourg you can contact the Online Parent service in English at the Kanner Jugend Telefon.
KJT can also advise on particular services in Luxembourg.
Grief and Loss (in Luxembourg)
CBT Therapist specialising in all areas of grief and loss: Sharon Mills
Certified Grief Recovery Specialist: Libby Kramer
Sex & Relationships
Childline.org.uk: YouTube channel has various videos aimed at young people about issues to do with keeping themselves safe, coping with puberty, sex and relationships.
Scarleteen – Sex Education for the Real World: This is a comprehensive sex & relationship education site for teenagers. You may want to visit this site before suggesting it to your child if only to help you understand the complexity of this issue for young people today. It will also serve as a useful place to go to share discussion one to one.
Drugs & Alcohol
Talk to Frank: is a UK based comprehensive website for young people and adults about Drugs & Alcohol. It gives information and advice about drugs, their use, the risks and the effects. We recommend that parents visit this site to increase knowledge about drug use, drug names (including slang names) and popular drugs used by young people.
Article by: Lynn Frank who is a coordinator for Passage.
Last updated: Friday 25th October, 2019