Unsettling dreams and nightmares are common after the death of a loved one. It is also “normal” to have heightened fears during waking hours. When someone we love dies we may fear that someone else close to us will die next. Adults can often verbalize their feelings of fear and understand that nightmares don’t necessarily represent reality. Children may have more difficulty understanding and explaining their fears, bad dreams, and nightmares. If you have children in your life I encourage you to talk with them about what bad dreams are, and that other children and adults have them too. Encourage them to talk about them. Explain that bringing fears and nightmares out into the open is one way to make them better, that you can help “carry the weight” of their fears and that they don’t need to be alone. You can also talk about what to do besides talking to cope with fears and nightmares. Maybe they have a stuffed animal that could comfort them, maybe having an extra song sung to them would help in the middle of the night. One activity we do with our groups is make pillowcase drawings. This is something that you can do at home (see below)
Permanent or fabric markers
Place the piece of cardboard inside the pillowcase so that the markers don’t bleed through both sides. On one side have the child draw happy memories of their loved one. They may also want to write words to describe their feelings and use specific colors. They may want to write words of encouragement, or have you contribute as well. On the other side of the pillowcase have them draw the things that make them angry or fearful about the death.
Talk with them about the pillowcase. Ask what they would like to do with the pillowcase. We often suggest that when a child is feeling angry or fearful, they might hit the bed with the angry or fearful side of the pillow. When they are sleeping, they may want to sleep with the memory side up. Doing this activity will give you a tangible way to talk with your child about their fears and nightmares.
Author: Lindsy Diener-Locke, Program Specialist