Grief is a natural emotional response resulting from significant loss, especially the death of a loved one. It is important to understand that no one “gets over” a loss. People learn to accept it, adjust to it, and live with it, but the loss does not go away. Everyone deals with grief in their own way and there is no “right” or ”correct” way to grieve. When grieving, some people cry, laugh, make themselves busy, have physical symptoms such as throwing up, or even feel numb. While some people may recovery quickly, others may take a longer time with their grief. Grief is considered a normal part of the healing process, and "normal" grief varies greatly between cultures, people, and situations. When children are dealing with grief, it is important to understand the relationship between the deceased and the child in order to best support the child during this difficult time.
What Grief Can Look Like
When children grieve there are different manifestations of grief that may be seen which are outlined below.
Changes in attention span/focus
Difficulty retaining information
Exaggeration in magical thinking
Symptoms associated with illness/injury of the deceased
Changes in appetite and sleep
How to Talk About Death
When talking to children about death it is important to consider their age, developmental level, and needs as you approach this topic. Typically when adults learn to speak about death, this is done through euphemisms. For example, adults will typically use terms such as “pass on”, "no longer with us," or ”at rest” when referring to a loved one that is deceased. Often times this is because words like “dead” can feel too painful to use. Unlike adults, children have not yet learned about these euphemisms and they can come across as confusing to them and should be avoided. Additional euphemisms that adults should avoid include saying “he passed,” “he’s gone,” or “we lost her.” Children will want to search for someone who is ”lost” and will expect someone who is “gone“ to return.
Instead, it is best to clearly state that someone has died. When adults avoid speaking openly and honestly with children about death, children will often fill the gaps with their own theories and ideas, which are often worse than reality. When adults begin speaking to children about death, they should be open to discussion. Bringing up the topic of death allows children to ask questions and express their feelings. however, this should not be brought up or used as a topic of conversation if a child is not ready.
One key thing that can help the child during the grieving process is teaching the child about death. Many children do not understand that death is permanent. Children might wonder how a deceased will eat or drink, or if they feel pain. Adults should explain that when a person dies, their body stops working, and they no longer need to do these things. It is common for children to need many reminders that the person will not return. When adults are able to, they should provide accurate information about how a person has died. This can be done by explaining simply what happened, while also omitting details that might be frightening or traumatic.
Adults should provide reassurance to the child that they are not at fault. Often times children may believe that something they said or did caused the person to die. Adults should reinforce the fact that thoughts, words and behaviors do not kill people. Further, trusted adults should reassure the child that they are safe. After the death of a loved one, many children might become concerned about their own and their family’s safety. Reassure the child that they are safe and will always be cared for by an adult.
Provide Choices & Create Rituals
After a loved one has died, it can be helpful to provide the child with choice. This can help to restore a child’s sense of control. For example, involving the child in the planning of the memorial service and letting them choose how to participate can be helpful. After a loved one has died, children may benefit from engaging in activities and rituals to remember the person. This could include things like cooking the persons favorite meal, hanging a picture, or writing in a journal. Doing this can help the child feel connected to the deceased.
Create Structure & Routine
When a child is grieving, it is important to empathize with the child’s grief. It is okay for children to either be very emotional or not emotional at all. Some children might initially seem fine or even feel a sense of relief, but later express sadness and pain. Whenever possible, it can be helpful to maintain normalcy. Keeping a structure and routine will give children a sense of predictability during this difficult time. Keeping routines for mealtimes, bedtimes, and daily activities can be helpful.
For the caregivers, it is important to care for yourself. A caregivers ability to cope after death will affect the child’s ability to cope, so caregivers should take the time to care for their mental and physical health and seek out social and/or professional supports. Remember that it is okay for children to see that you are upset or see you cry. However, if possible, it is best to avoid intense displays of emotions, which can be scary for children.
When To Seek Additional Support
While grief is a natural process and there is no “right” way to grieve, sometimes grief can become too painful and grow into something different, like anxiety or depression. Other times, grief might last far too long and begin to take over someone’s life. This is what is known as complicated grief.
In addition, children may have intense emotional reactions after the death of a loved one and may mention suicidal thoughts or wanting to die. Adults should take these comments seriously and if they feel that their child is in danger they should call 911, take them to an emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for free and confidential support available 24/7.
If you or your child is struggling with managing symptoms of grief, therapy may be a helpful next step. Therapy can be a safe space to ask questions about death and grief, explore emotions, and learn strategies to manage these strong emotions. In addition, therapy can be a place for parents to learn strategies to provide support for their children and themselves.
At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialized in assisting children and their families with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation.