The process of grieving is exponentially compounded whenever children are involved. January is both “Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month” and “Children Who Are Impacted By Their Parent’s Cancer Month.” Both of these examples represent different ways that grief may enter a child’s life. To better understand what children may be experiencing during a loss, we will focus on the death of a close loved one as an example. Many of these same principles are felt (in varying degrees) in other situations—for instance, when a child’s parents separate or a child moves to a new neighborhood away from old friends.
Grieving is often thought of as an adult issue, specifically, an older adult issue. However, this is not truly the case. Grief comes into our lives at any stage, and children are often faced with periods of grief due to a variety of reasons. It is imperative that adults use these moments to help guide children towards healthy grieving practices. The gift of working through grief is a skill that children can carry along throughout a lifetime. Afterall, the likelihood of grief re-entering children’s lives at a later stage is high, given that loss is a universally felt experience by everyone from time to time. Even though it may be tough to see opportunity while facing the darkness of a difficult situation, educating yourself on children’s common responses to grief can help you know what to expect.
A child’s response to grief is going to vary based on their age/stage of development, along with their unique personality and relationship with the person or thing that has been lost. Young children, ages 3-5, tend to view death as reversible. The permanence of death is difficult for them to fully understand, and they may expect that the deceased person will return. The concept of “forever” is not something they’re able to comprehend at this stage. From ages 5-9, children begin to understand that death is permanent, but they have trouble realizing that it will happen to the people who they are closest to. Understandably, when a close relative or friend dies, children may react with shock, anger, fear, confusion or denial. Although these short-term responses are normal, they should be addressed so they may be overcome through time, support and guidance.
If a child seems depressed, or loses interest in activities they once enjoyed, it might be wise to put a greater emphasis on encouraging that child to express their feelings of grief. Difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite or withdrawal from friends are all signs that the child may need additional help. Fear of being alone, refusal to go to school, acting younger than they are (through baby talk or bedwetting) or pretending to speak with or see the deceased person are also possible indicators that the child has not accepted the death and is not moving forward in a healthy way. While these are normal responses in the short term, they should not be allowed to persist for too long. Children often feel personally guilty for death because they mistakenly take responsibility for everything that happens in their lives. Explaining to children that they are not responsible can take some of the weight off of their shoulders.
Preteens and teenagers can vary widely in their maturity level and ability to handle a loss. Although they may seem like adults, teens and preteens are still developing and may be really shaken by a significant loss. Start by reaching out to the resources at their school and through their primary care doctor’s office. Even if a child says everything is fine, it doesn’t hurt to encourage them to take some time out for their feelings. Watch for personality changes and signs of depression or anxiety. Sometimes, just letting a teenager know that you’re available if they need you can make all the difference.
Understanding children’s normal responses to grief can help adults anticipate issues as they arise. Children often feel a loss of stability when faced with the death of a loved one. Although it is normal for children to have a harder time accepting that death is permanent, it is important that they reach that understanding eventually so they can begin the grieving process. This will help to avoid some of the long-term issues which typically stem from denial.
Allowing children to express their feelings fosters a healthy grieving process. This may be accomplished through activities like drawing pictures, making a scrapbook, planting a tree, telling stories or remembering the person in some meaningful way. If children show signs of anger or excessive neediness, try to acknowledge their feelings and encourage them to connect these feelings with the root of their sadness. As children learn to recognize how grief is causing them to feel (angry, sad, guilty, frustrated, scared, etc.) they can gain better agency of those feelings.
After the death of a loved one, it is more important than ever for children to have some sense of stability and security. Sticking to normal routines as much as possible can help alleviate a child’s anxiety after a loss. Children should feel heard and understand that it is okay to express their feelings. Do your best to answer questions and be direct, but do not offer more information than a child can handle. It’s important not to overwhelm them with details that they aren’t ready to hear. If you have religious beliefs about the afterlife, sharing these with children can help them find comfort during their grieving process. Many children’s books have been written to address the issue of grieving. Reading these together with a child can make it easier for them to bring up the issue of grief in a safe and guided way.
As a caregiver, it is vital to take time out for your individual grieving process despite the responsibility to care for others. Sometimes, the needs of others can become a distraction from our own healing. Children learn more by example than anything they are told or instructed to do. Seeing an adult cope with grief in a healthy way, either via guidance from a structured Grief Recovery program or through personal reflection and action, is the best way to provide hope for that child. It is okay for children to see that adults go through periods of sadness or despair. These are normal feelings. A ray of hope is formed when that adult is able to discover a future of wholeness and happiness despite the losses they have endured.
It can be particularly difficult to leave a child who is grieving in order to attend group sessions, therapy or workshops. If the child is old enough to understand, explain to that child what you are doing. Share that are you are working on healing your heart because you are sad about the loss. This can give a child an example to follow, even if their process to find healing is different than yours. If nothing else, it starts to expose them to the concept of a finding solace within an established framework rather than remaining lost or alone in grief.
If you’re looking for more guidance on caring for grieving children, we encourage you to reach out through our website to an experienced Grief Recovery Specialist. Another great resource is the National Alliance for Grieving Children. On their website, childrengrieve.org, you can find videos, workbooks and toolkits to help you facilitate developmentally appropriate grief support. You can also speak with the child’s pediatrician or school social worker for local resources and to gain a better understanding of what is and isn’t developmentally-appropriate behavior.