Helping Grieving Children Cope

It is so important to note that children are going to have many questions about death and most are extremely different from the ones that adults usually ask. Many questions from children deserve simple and straightforward answers. The first task for grieving children is to make sense of all the factual information about the loss. One of the most important parts of making sense of the information is that a caregiver gives the child a concrete explanation of the facts that are surrounding the death. This helps them come to terms with the loss, and they may ask to hear the explanation a few times. They could also share the story with their teachers, friends and even strangers. Storytelling is a way of comprehending what has happened.

A child’s perception of loss and how they grieve is different depending on their developmental level. Death or any other types of loss can mean different things to children at different ages. Take the time to inquire about what loss means to them at this point in their life. Most times, by asking children what they feel they have lost is a simple way of finding out what they are missing right now. These feelings could sometimes change, so caregivers should be ready to ask this question a few times to get a solid answer.

When talking about loss and death, it is best to speak in simple terms and ask open-ended questions. Ask them what they are thinking, how they feel, and what they know and have questions about. Answering questions can be difficult, but you should answer them with details that are age appropriate.

You should avoid telling children half-truths and lies because it is very hard to unlearn information that we learn as children. Many times, it is common for parents and caregivers to avoid using the word ‘death’ and use better-sounding alternatives. However, this can create more fears for the child. A good example is saying your loved one is asleep, the child could think that they are coming back, or the child could worry that they are going to fall asleep and never wake up.

You may need to initiate the conversation. Many times, children avoid asking questions because they are scared that they are going to make you mad or upset. They also may not know how to ask their questions or have the words to describe their uncertainties. Children know when something unusual is going on, and are very scared by what is happening. They could avoid asking questions, and turn to whining and other behaviors to get your attention. This can add to your emotional stress, which could make you mad or upset instead of being supportive. It can be difficult at times, but you should take some time to find opportunities to ask your children about how they feel and if they have any questions. 

It is extremely important to dispel any fears that your children may have. Many times, children are afraid that they are going to lose someone else that is close to them or that they are going to die. They need to be assured that these fears are unfounded. Most children have a deep fear of being abandoned, which is why it is so important that caregivers remind the child that they are not going to leave them. Reassuring the child that you are planning to live a long life and will take care of them for a long time is a good way of reducing that fear. 

Along with learning about grief, children should be allowed to teach adults how they are grieving. Every child is different and unique, so their responses are going to be unique. Instead of assuming that we know how a child is feeling, we should have an open mind and allow them to teach us how they deal with grief. Most children share their grief with the people who they trust. Many times, children will tell us how they are feeling and what they are experiencing. As adults, we should be respectful, understanding, and accepting of their feelings. Children have a good sense of what is going on, so taking them seriously, even from a young age will help them develop a better sense of self.

Like adults, children have many ways of expressing themselves after a loss. There are some widely recognized ways like acting out, lack of feelings, fear, self-blame or guilt, regressive behavior, trying to be an adult, loneliness, panic, disorganization, and explosive emotions. There are many other behaviors and habits that children can use to express their grief. Some are easier to spot than others and unhealthy behaviors should be addressed quickly.

There are simple ways that children can be involved with the funeral or memorial services, even if they do not attend them. Lighting a candle next to a photo, writing a letter or drawing a picture to be placed in the casket, or releasing a balloon or a bottle in the ocean with a letter to the loved can be great ways of saying goodbye, especially if the child was not able to say goodbye before the passing. Children can be very creative with creating meaningful ideas with a little help.

Being caregivers, it is easy to use our concerns for our children to mask our needs to address our own grief issues. Many times, it is easier to say that ‘I’m worried about the children’ than to say ‘I’m having a hard time dealing with this’. So, you should try to avoid transferring your anxieties and fears onto your children.

Above everything else, you should let your children know that their feelings of grief are natural and are an important part of the grieving process. You need to assure them that others are experiencing the same emotions that they are. You should also assure them that these feelings are going to pass, and life is going to return to normal.

Practical Guidelines to Help

  • When explaining death to a child, use simple and direct language.
  • Avoid lies and half-truths. Unlearning is difficult and painful for many people.
  • Allow them to express all their emotions.
  • Listen to them. Do not just talk to them.
  • They may not react immediately. Make yourself available and have patience
  • Take time to understand your own feelings about grief and death. Until you understand your own feelings, it is hard to convey a positive attitude to others, especially children.

The most important influence that children have is how adults react and respond to what is going on. Caring adults are an important part of guiding children through this very difficult time, and making the loss a valuable part of personal development and growth. When you support your children during challenging life transitions, they know that they are not alone and have someone to ask questions. This is one of the most important gifts that we can give our children.