Helping a grieving child

Grief and loss

Grief is the pain that is experienced when we lose something of value. It may be experienced in response to a number of different events e.g., loss of a loved one, parent separation/divorce, the death of a pet, friends moving away, relocation. Different emotions such as anger, sadness, guilt, confusion, shock, numbness, despair might be experienced as a part of the grieving process.

We all cope with death and grief differently. Children may also vary in their response to the death. Some might develop relatively few problems, while others face significant or prolonged symptoms, such as PTSD or anxiety. 

Losing someone can be a traumatic event itself but watching our children go through grieving process can make the experience even more difficult. As a parent you might feel the urge to protect your child from the pain but this can be disruptive for your child’s emotional development.  Loss is an inevitable part of life, but teaching your child positive and productive coping mechanisms will help them through the process in the long term.

Helping a grieving child:
  1. Allow them to grieve

As a parent it might be hard for you to see your child in pain but you have to let them go through the process. Children grieve in their own way some might withdraw into virtual games, for some developmental regression can occur e.g., bedwetting or thumb-sucking. Allow the child to feel and show whatever emotions they're feeling. 

  1. Talk openly and honestly with them 

When kids are mourning the loss of a loved one, they'll start asking questions about death. The questions can come at any time, immediately after the loss or even after some months. The most common questions asked are: 

  • What is death? 
  • Why do people die? 
  • Where do they go when they die? 
  • Will I die, too? 
  • Can they come back?” 
  • Are you going to die too?

Answer them as honestly as possible. Find a way to give an age-appropriate response while being honest.

  1. Separate your Grief from theirs

Remember that children are vulnerable; they take cues from the way in which you cope with and handle the loss. If you hide your emotions and retreat, they may do the same. If you need time for emotional regulation or assessment, find shared activities that can offer each of you a "go to" when the emotions become overwhelming. For example, having a crying book. Hold it when you feel like crying, talk about it, draw the emotions and write about them in it. This becomes a bit of a ritual for sharing and holding one another during this very hard time.

  1. Be aware of how your child’s grief may manifest itself

Everyone grieves differently, and there is no ‘normal’. They can cry one minute and laugh in the next. Some might act out their feelings, rather than verbal expression. Some might face changes in their behaviour patterns. 

None of these behaviours should alarm or concern you since they are a part of the regular grieving process. However, if after a decent amount of time has passed, your child’s grief is getting in the way of their daily functioning, you may want to consider getting some professional help. 

Things to avoid when your child’s grieving:
  1. Don’t devalue their grief

Don't devalue their grief. It can be scary to lose a loved one for a child. If you see them playing, don’t stop them. Since with play they might be working on some aspect of grief in their own language or comfort zone. Don't tell them to be strong or forget it. 

  1. Always tell the truth 

Saying things such as “Daddy is resting or just asleep” or “He just went to another country” or “You'll see them in your dreams” you are planting a false belief in their heads. Doing this can cause stress and fear in the child. No matter how old your child is, avoid using metaphors for death that liken it to sleep or moving. 

Try saying “Daddy died” or “he is going to stay in our memories and in our heart only”. He is in our memories and we can keep him alive in our hearts”. Don't give them false pictures of death or life.

  1. Don’t ‘adultify’ them

Avoid saying things like, "now that mom or dad have died you will have to be the ‘mom’ or ‘dad’” or “you are the new head of the family”. Only give them responsibilities in the home that are age-appropriate and not as a response for someone’s death. 

Recommended books for grieving kids

The following books might teach your child about death, grief, loss, sadness and how to say goodbye: 

  • The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
  • Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile: A Story About Coping with the Loss of a Parent, by Donna Pincus
  • Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman is a beautiful, heartfelt exploration of the unconditional love that a parent has for a child, even when they cannot be together.
  • I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
  • The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is a comforting story about two siblings who learn that everyone has an invisible string connecting them to everyone they love
  • Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola 
  • Ida, Always by Caron Levis. It beautifully explores the turbulent range of emotions felt when a loved one becomes terminally ill.  
  • I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas. It talks about why people die, what a funeral is, and explores the difficult feelings and emotions of missing someone very much.
  • Good Answers to Tough Questions About Death by Joy Berry
  • A Complete Book About Death for Kids by Earl Grollman
  • My Grandson Lew by Charlotte Zolotow, about a grandparent’s death
  • When Something Terrible Happens by Marge Heegaard
  • When Someone Very Special Dies by Marge Heegaard
  • Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
  • The Next Place by Warren Hanson

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