Helping Children Cope with Grief

It is important to note that children have many questions about death, and these are usually different than the ones that occur to adults. Children’s questions deserve simple, straight forward answers.

Children’s perception of loss and their grief has to be understood according to their developmental levels. Death, or indeed any loss, means different things to children of different ages. Inquire and try to figure out what this loss means to this child at this particular time in life.

Dispel any fears the child may have.
Children are often afraid that someone else in the family, or they themselves will die also. They need to have reassurance that these fears are unfounded.

Children need to teach adults about their grief.
As adults communicate respect, acceptance, warmth and understanding, the child will sense that they are being taken seriously and be more open to the stabilizing presence of that individual as they reach out with meaningful support.

Children express themselves in a variety of ways after a loss.
Some of the most widely recognized include: an apparent lack of feelings; acting out behavior; regressive behavior; fear; guilt and self-blame; “Big Man” or “Big Woman” syndrome; disorganization and panic; loss and loneliness; and, explosive emotions.

Create simple ceremonies.
Such as lighting a candle next to a photograph; placing a letter, picture or special memento in a casket; or releasing a helium balloon with a message attached for the person who died, can be effective rituals of farewell. Children can be wonderfully creative with these kinds of meaningful, symbolic ideas.

Speak in simple language.
 Ask the child what he/she thinks, knows and feels, and respond specifically to these concerns. Do not give excessive detail, and make sure you check how the child is putting the information all together.

Be honest.
Never tell a child something he/she will later have to unlearn. Don’t avoid the word death, because sometimes the alternatives (asleep, gone away, in a better place, etc.) create worse difficulty in a child’s mind.

Be open about the situation.
 When my wife died, my boys were 9 and 7 years of age. There was no avoiding the questions that arose. “Why did Mommy die?” “Where is she now?” “What will we do if you die too?” I tried to answer the questions they asked simply and honestly, without giving too complicated responses. They discerned that I was making them a part of it all, and was being open about everything and accepted that.

Initiate the conversation.
 Children may not ask questions because they are not sure if they will upset us adults. They may not know what to ask, or be able to put their uncertainties into words. Instead of asking questions, they may turn to whining or other negative behaviors, which add to your emotional stress. In response, rather than helping them cope, adults may get upset or angry and this adds to the reluctance to talk. Try to be sensitive to opportunities to ask children how they feel.

Sometimes our concern for the children can mask a deep need to resolve our own adult grief issues. Sometimes it is easier and more socially acceptable to say, “I am concerned about the children,” than it is to say, “I’m having a hard time dealing with this myself.” So be careful not to transfer your own fears and anxieties on to the children.

Often a child may benefit from a support program.
Talk to your doctor, spiritual leader or other community resource people to see what programs are available for your children.

Above all, let the child know that these feelings of grief are natural and a necessary part of the grieving process and that their grief will pass. Assure them they are not alone, and that others, including you yourself, feel sad as well.

An important influence on children is watching how adults are responding. When you support children through these difficult life transitions, they will know without a doubt they are not alone. There is no greater gift we can give our children.

~Adapted from an Article by Dr. Bill Webster