Grieving the death of someone you love is completely natural and healthy. It’s how you cope with and heal from your loss. You may want to avoid the grieving process, but it’s important to go through it. Trying to avoid the pain of a loss can actually make it last longer. Avoiding grief can also lead to unresolved grief, which is tied to chronic depression. Grief is difficult for adults, who understand death and have usually dealt with it before. It can be even harder for children. They may not comprehend what’s happened and/or may be experiencing the loss of a loved one for the first time.
When a child’s friend or family member becomes seriously ill or dies, the child may be scared, confused angry or sad. They may feel guilty or worry that they somehow caused the death. Some children become afraid that someone else they love will die soon, too.
Listening is the first step to helping a child through grief. By knowing what they’re thinking, you can address their concerns and help them understand what really happened and what will happen next.
Before you have this talk, think about how you’ll answer some of the questions the child might ask. Is the person coming back? Is he lonely or cold? Why couldn’t the doctor fix her? Is it my fault? The child may repeat these questions over the course of several conversations in the coming weeks and months. Be patient and answer them in a way the child can understand. The best way to do this is to avoid confusing terms. Saying that the deceased “passed away,” “was laid to rest,” or “lost her life” may only confuse children and make matters worse.
Most importantly, don’t try to hide the death. If children aren’t given an answer to what’s going on or why their loved one is gone, they generally will make up a story on their own using their imagination. Remember that many children’s movies, cartoons and books involve death in some way.
Helping a Grieving Child
There are several ways to help children deal with grief.
- Encourage them to talk about their feelings. Don’t tell them how they should or shouldn’t feel. Accept what they have to say.
- Try to maintain their daily routine. This will give them a sense of stability.
- Stay physically close and spend extra time with the child. Tell them you love and care about them.
- Talk about the person who died and the happy memories you share.
- Encourage children to participate in their regular activities.
- Make sure they get plenty of rest, exercise and are eating right.
- Consider taking them to a support group for children/teens who have experienced the death of a loved one.
Just like adults, sometimes grieving children need help from a professional therapist. Look out for things like weight changes or frequent illnesses; changes in sleeping or eating patterns; being quiet, withdrawn, fearful or anxious; aggressive play or acts of rage; failing at things they used to be good at. Also look for signs of risky behavior, like drug and alcohol use, sexual activity or reckless driving.
How Age Affects Children’s Reactions
A child’s age plays a big part in what they understand and how they react to the death of a loved one.
Infant through 2 years: At this age, children don’t understand death, but they may realize that a caregiver is no longer around. This can make them stressed or anxious. Try to keep their routine as close to normal as possible.
Toddlers though preschool (2 to 5 years): In general, children in this range don’t understand that death is final. They often use their imaginations to explain a death, so it’s very important to tell them what happened in simple, easy words. You may have to explain death to them many times to help them understand. Because of their short attention span, you may also need to keep the talks brief.
School age (5 to 12 years): Children in this range begin to see death as an end. They may think something they did or said caused the death, and could have feelings of guilt. It is important to tell them that they did not cause the death. They also may feel anger and frustration. Let them know it is okay to have these feelings and teach them healthy ways to express them, such as drawing, painting, journaling or physical exercise.
Pre-teens and teenagers (12 to 18 years): As children get older, they understand that death is final. This age group often experiences more intense feelings, but can be uncomfortable showing their emotions. They have trouble asking for help and may try to cope by withdrawing when they are most upset. Some become unusually angry or try to avoid their feelings by throwing themselves into friends, school, or other activities. Often they need to talk to people outside their family, including friends, teachers, coaches or religious leaders.