Death, loss, grief and mourning are difficult concepts for children. Adults have a difficult time with pain, but how do we help children to deal with loss. Young children do not know what death is, and may be confused by the reaction of the people around them. Grief is the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional reactions following the loss of a loved one. Here are several ideas for helping children sort through their grief.
Different age groups react to loss differently. Preschoolers may regress and show more immature behavior and attitudes such as bedwetting, clinging to adults, excessive crying, and exaggerated fears. Elementary age children may have problems at school, regressive behaviors, or eating and sleeping problems. Preteens and adolescents express loss with physical complaints, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, increased risk taking or possibly self-destructive behaviors. No matter the age of the child, you can help them to process and understand the passing of a loved one.
First, be open, honest, and receptive to communication with the child. Providing opportunities for expression, creativity, and talking can help the child to verbalize and sort out their feelings. Encourage them gently to express the full range of their emotions. Then help them to find suitable outlets for their pain, anger, or sadness. When asked questions, tell them what they are capable of understanding and share how you feel and think. Second, kids will watch and observe how you handle your sorrow, thus role-model healthy emotional expressions, and behaviors. Do not restrict yourself but think carefully about what you want your young ones to see and understand. It can be helpful for the child to comprehend that you feel upset too.
Third, supporting your child in memorializing their loved one can help them to manage their pain. Honoring their lost parent or friend can be anything from attending the funeral to lighting a candle, looking at pictures, or writing a story, this helps them to express sorrow in their way. Fourth, remember that because it is a new experience for the child that will often have questions that they repeat many times as they are integrating loss into their experiences. When they repeat a question, they have asked you several times already remain open, honest, and help them to understand what has happened.
Many children will misunderstand cause and effect, consequently blaming themselves about what occurred, such as “if I had been home I could have done something.” Help them to understand the reality of the situation and that they are not responsible. Guilt when grieving may further complicate the child’s healing process. Often explaining causality and lessening feelings of guilt may have to be repeated several times, before insight is gained.
It is normal in the weeks and months following a death for children and family members to grieve; however not allowing a child to deal with their feelings can become emotionally unhealthy leading to more severe problems later. A child may need professional help in processing and understanding what has happened, and a knowledgeable counselor or pediatrician can be useful in times of increased stress and loss.