do you parent a child or adolescent whose loved one or friend has died? How can you understand what to expect, what to say, and what to do? 10 Steps is a sensitive, to-the-point guidebook that uses a combination of empathetic descriptions, clear explanations, illustrative stories, and practical suggestions to aid you on your journey. It includes special sections for parenting children grieving the loss of a brother or sister, loss from suicide, multiple losses, and loss of someone killed by another person, as well as a short section on trauma.

With your help, the children you love can continue their growth, telling a story of their lives that includes nourishing memories and a sense of themselves as strong, resilient, caring people. This book is the perfect resource for parents, grandparents, loving relatives, and caring adult friends--and also for teachers and other professionals helping children and parents with loss and grief.

My 7 year old says she wants to die so she can be with her father who died recently. What should I say and do?
Some children have fantasies about joining their loved one in heaven by dying themselves. This is understandable. First, it takes a long time for children to grasp the concept that death is irreversible. Children of your daughter's age (and even older) still waver in their understanding that death is forever. So you daughter's fantasies of reunion with her dad may not include the realization that she herself would never be alive again once she died. (Cartoons and video games where characters regularly come back to life seem to give evidence supporting children's ideas of death as less than final.)

Second, yearning for the loved one who died is a grief response shared by many children and adults. You can empathize with your child's longing for the missing person, letting her know that she's not alone in that feeling. And at the same time, you can let her know that she can keep her Daddy in her heart while living life on earth. Be clear that this is what Daddy would want her to do. Lovingly think together about your daughter's future on this earth. Reinforce this by showing that you notice and appreciate the positive things she does, whether it is patting the dog, setting the table, learning in school, getting up after falling down, or being kind to someone else.

If belief in God and heaven is a part of your faith, you can emphasize that heaven is eternal and comes at the end of our God-given lives here; her father will be there forever and he will wait until she has had a full life. When there is a lot of emphasis on what a wonderful place heaven is, children can get the ideas that death is a desirable thing because they'll be surrounded by love, no one will ever be upset with them again, and they won't feel any more sadness, pain, fear or anger. It's more helpful to emphasize that God's love is always with her, even while she's on this earth, giving her strength and courage.

Remember that young children typically are very concrete thinkers. They may take images and metaphors as literally true. So watch out for the possibility of your child interpreting things you or someone else has said in a way that is very different from what was intended. Be ready to ask gentle questions to clarify what she's thinking when she makes statements that alarm or sadden you, or if she seems frightened. For example, a child may imagine her father literally being held in the arms of a nice man named Jesus, and feel left out. Another child may be frightened of Jesus as a "dead guy hanging on the wall" upon seeing a crucifix in a classroom.

Sometimes a child wants to join a dead parent or sibling because all of the family's attention and energy seems to be focused on the person who died. Your grief is necessary and confusion is to be expected. But you can step back for a moment and see if preoccupation with the person who died has taken over so much that a child might feel that the only way to get attention and love is to be dead, too. If that could be happening, think what you can do to shift things, even a little. You want to find a way for your child to feel that she matters as a person, too. Is there a group you can pour out your feelings to so that there's more breathing room at home? Can you find a way to carve out some time with your child when you're paying attention to her? Are there other people who can spend time with her? Are there activities she can enjoy? She may benefit from a children's bereavement group. Both of you may find counseling helpful.

Reunion fantasies are found in children who have experienced the death of a loved one from many different causes. These reunion fantasies almost always are telling us of children's yearning, pain, confusion about death and heaven, and their need to be noticed, rather than actual threats. While it can be frightening to hear your young child talk this way—and may sound particularly scary to a parent who has lost a spouse to suicide—seeing this as a time to stay calm and open up communication will bear fruit. Research done by Matthew Nock of Harvard University (recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant) on actual suicidal thoughts and behavior indicates that they are "virtually unheard-of before age 10," according to a 1/8/2013 article in the New York Times. What helps the most is to let your child know that you are truly listening to her and trying to find out what she is telling you. Then let her know you are there for her with a hug, with your attention, and your love.
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