Grief and loss are often difficult topics for parents and caregivers to discuss with children. Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic has increased this burden for many which is complicated by the fact that continuing to ensure health for others may change how an individual’s life is celebrated.
Children understand and process loss differently given their developmental age. A preschooler’s understanding of death is much different than a 10 year olds understanding. Everyone experiences grief differently and expresses that grief in their own unique way. There is no timeline for grief, each person grieves in their own way and on their own schedule. Children may not always feel comfortable or have the language to share their emotional reactions and often lead with behavioral reactions. Behavioral reactions to grief can include:
- Finding it difficult to talk about their emotions
- Sleep challenges
- Lack of concentration
- Need for more affection/reassurance
- Feelings of sadness/anger
- Intense worry
- Changes in performance at school
- Distancing self from others to avoid more hurt
- Acting younger than their age or reverting back to past behaviors
- However, a wide variety of behaviors can be connected to grief for children.
Key Things to Consider:
- Share developmentally appropriate information with sensitivity and directness. Explain the death in a way that makes sense for the child. Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away” or “gone”. Children may demonstrate magical thinking that a person can come back from death.
- Encourage questions and give the child space to express any feelings or fears that they may have.
- Normalize any feelings that come up and share your feelings as well. Children benefit from hearing that the only way to get through the grief process is by experiencing their feelings.
- Allow children choices where you can and acknowledge that grief is a journey that isn’t always linear. The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is an excellent book on grief to read with children.
- Help the child say goodbye.
- Explain the funeral plans and offer to support them in attending if old enough. Alternatively, if they choose not to attend, collaborate on an alternative ritual for saying goodbye such as lighting a candle or taking flowers to the grave site.
- Continue to talk about their loved one and allow them space to remember them.
- Create a memory book
- Writing a letter or drawing a picture about the loss
- Ensure that the child doesn’t feel that they are alone. Children benefit when the adults in their lives provide opportunities to acknowledge the grief everyone is feeling.
- Promote a return to routines and daily life while acknowledging that additional support may be needed for the child. For example, encouraging school attendance but working the school team to allow for a comfort call during the day if needed.
It is important to know that you are not alone. There are many resources available via the internet and in the form of grief support for your child. You can find children’s grief support programs near you at www.ChildrenGrieve.org. A mental health professional can be a great resource to assist parents through this process or if a parent finds that their child is struggling with continued symptoms of grief or depression that are impacting their ability to live a full life.