I’m sure your reaction to the death of former heavyweight world champion Mike Tyson’s four-year old daughter was the same as mine: just profound sadness. But for her seven-year-old brother to find his little sister with an exercise cord from the treadmill wrapped around her neck is absolutely horrific! We know that the death of a loved one is one of the most stressful events that a youngster can ever face, and even more so when it’s a violent death.
Late-breaking research reveals that certain parenting techniques will help youngsters deal with profound loss as well as regain hope for their future. How parents respond can have a powerful impact on the child’s emotional health and life outlook. Here are some suggestions for the Tyson family, with points every parent should consider if someone especially close to your child dies.
Give permission to grieve. Let your child know that his emotions are normal. Accept his regressions or emotional outbursts. Agree that losing a loved one is not fair. Affirm that crying and sadness or any other emotion are all part of grieving and that it may take some time for him to feel happy or like his old self again.
Don’t hide your feelings. It’s okay to show sadness, shock, and anger and express how you feel. Shed your tears but remember that your child is also looking to you to help guide him through the process. You might also share your memories with pictures[i] and stories about the loved one. Research shows that doing this can help reduce your child’s sense of isolation.
Be supportive. Don’t assume your child can deal with grief without help and support. Be lavish with your hugs and your love. This is a tough time for both of you. Let your child know that you’re available for anything he needs.
Encourage expressive experiences. Many kids have trouble verbalizing their feelings about death and loss. Think about providing an outlet for your child that helps her express her grief. Younger children might draw or paint their intense feelings; older children may wish to write their feelings in a diary, journal or notebook or even compose a letter to the deceased expressing things she never got to say.
Suggest positive outlets for the grief. Some families help their child start a memorial fund or activity to honor their loved one. Others find some kind of healthy physical activity that your child can do to work off tension and sadness: bike ride, jog, do yoga, shoot baskets, visit a friend or have a friend over to play.
Keep to normal routines whenever possible. Routines and rituals, especially during times of trauma, create security for children. Whenever possible keep some semblance of the child’s normal schedule intact (bedtime, evening meals, etc.).
Pass on your religious or cultural customs. Whether your custom is to light a candle, say a rosary, sit on a hard stool to receive mourning visitors’ condolences, offer special prayers, or go to a religious service, teach them to your child and do them together. Doing this can be comforting – and a way to help your child learn a lifelong coping strategy.
Monitor your child closely. Watch her to ensure that there is a gradual diminishment of grief. An absence of grief after only a short time probably isn’t authentic or healthy. And if some form of the grief continues to affect her daily life or if the child has trouble eating, concentrating, sleeping, or appears depressed, please seek the help of a mental health professional. Also note that some symptoms of grief can continue or re-emerge after many weeks and even months.
Take care of yourself. Your child needs you or some other adult to help guide him through the process. If the deceased was close to you — your spouse, child or parent — you may wish to consider seeking counseling for yourself. You don’t want your child to worry about you as well.
My thoughts and prayers go to the Tyson family.
Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including the upcoming Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries