Children and grief

Understanding how children grieve the loss of a loved one can help them cope during difficult times.

Girl with heart balloon

Loss can mean many things. It can come in many forms and possibly be the loss of a loved one, a pet, a house due to a fire or of a family due to a divorce, just to name a few. Everyone experiences and copes with a loss differently and children are no different. Depending on the developmental stage and age of the child, the responses will vary. Preschool children usually see death as temporary because they see the cartoon characters on television die and come back to life. Children 5 and older think more like adults about death but still feel it will not happen to them or people they know.

Young children may feel that the death is their fault. They may also act younger than they are, need extra attention and cuddling, make unreasonable demands and possibly wet their beds. Children of all ages may have nightmares, be irritable or show anger towards surviving family members. Additionally, older children may withdrawal from others, have a drop in academic performance, be distracted, unable to focus, have memory problems, profound sadness, experience loneliness and depression and irregular sleep and appetite patterns.

A child should never be forced to attend a funeral. Discover other ways to honor or remember a loved one. Some possibilities include planting a tree, lighting a candle, writing a story about that person, looking at photographs or telling stories. In addition, allow the child to decide how they would like to be comforted and greeted at a memorial service and funeral. Respect the child to decide if they would like to give or receive a hug or kiss, a high five or not be touched at all. Adults assume that a hug or kiss will comfort a sad child, but it absolutely needs to be the decision of the child.

When talking to children about death or loss, be direct and simple. Use words such as “died” or “death” or the “body has quit working” instead of “passed away” or “went to sleep”. Children are literal thinkers and may be afraid to go to sleep as a result. Allow them to take a break from grieving. They will not grieve continuously and will need opportunities to laugh and play. It’s OK to laugh. It doesn’t mean they aren’t still grieving the loss. Also, with a hurtful loss there is really no such thing as closure. Whether it is the death of a loved one, pet, family unit, house, etc., they will remember the situation for the rest of their lives.

Children will eventually process, learn to cope and are able to move on with their lives. Encourage them to remember in a way that works for them. One way to help is for adults to validate a child’s feelings and comments. Let them know it is OK to feel sad, mad, afraid, confused or lonely and that, possibly, you do as well sometimes. Avoid saying “you have to be brave this time of year”, “everything will be OK”, “I know how you are feeling”, which will only repress their feelings and keep them from expressing their feelings to you now and in the future.

Finally, as an important person in a child’s life, remember to take care of yourself and your well-being as well. It is OK for children to see your tears and to feel your pain. Ask them for a hug when needed. It allows your children to know it is OK to feel emotions and ask for comfort. If being around your child or other family members is too much, take a break and allow others to spend time with them. Care for yourself by eating, exercising and sleeping well. Grief can come in waves and be overwhelming at times. You cannot take care of others if you are hurting yourself. Give yourself a break when it comes to committing to extracurricular activities, cleaning the house or feeding the family home-cooked meals every night. Accepting help is a good lesson for young children to learn for the future.

During this time, everyone’s life may be in chaos. Young children need structure but at the same time change will happen, and change is good. They thrive on rituals and traditions but those will change as well. Make new traditions, talk about the future in a positive way, and share specific, good memories of the person, pet or life that has been lost.

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