What to Know
- While it is rarely something our society likes to admit, children do experience grief and need their families, friends, and communities to recognize and understand what they are going through.
- Children under five years old may not understand the finality of death. They will likely need ongoing explanations to help them understand that their loved one is not coming back. Clear, honest, and patient explanations, as difficult as it may be, are important for this age group.
- Children of many ages may mistakenly believe that they somehow caused the death of their loved one, by their behavior or through magical thinking. They need reassurances that this is not the case.
- Many children don’t appear to be grieving because their grief looks different from adults’. Some common grief reactions in children include:
- Acting as if nothing has happened
- Becoming clingy
- Regressing to earlier behaviors (i.e. bedwetting, thumb-sucking)
- Hyperactivity, aggression, disruptive behavior
- Withdrawn or sad behavior
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fear of other important people in their life dying or questions or fears about their own death
- Self-consciousness and not wanting to appear different from other kids
- It is normal for children to use play to understand and cope with death.
- Children often grieve in small bits, sometimes thought of as “grief-spurts.” A child may be crying one moment and laughing the next, and needs to process grief at their own pace.
- Grief may come back up for children throughout their lives as they experience new events and stages without their loved one.
What to Say (and Not Say)
- Help children feel like they can ask questions and when they do, respond as honestly and clearly as possible.
- Use concrete terms such as “died” since words like “We lost my husband” or “Her father passed away” can be confusing to young children.
- Let children know that all kinds of emotions, while difficult and sometimes scary, are normal for kids to have after someone close to them has died.
- Children can sense adults’ emotions, and it is important to talk to children about the death and how the adults feel in an age-appropriate way that models that it is ok to feel a range of emotions after a loved one’s death.
- Ask about the child’s loved one, especially around holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and special events where the child may or may not realize that they are missing someone they would expect to be there.
- Use the name of the person who died to show that it’s ok to talk about and remember them.
- Let children know that there are many different ways to grieve and that any way that doesn’t hurt them or others is okay.
- Ask children how they are feeling and what they need, they may have needs or ideas that hadn’t occurred to you.
- More than knowing what to say, it is important to know how to listen- listening without judgment or feeling like you need to offer a solution, making sure children know their voices are heard and respected can incredibly valuable.
Activities to Do with Kids who are Grieving
- Routines are incredibly important to children’s sense of safety and well-being. Consider how to help children find a normal routine following a major change such as a death in the family.
- Let children participate in rituals of grief such as funerals or memorial services to the extent that they want to. This normalizes grief and shows them many people are missing the person who died. If they are not able to go to the funeral, allow them to create their own way of saying goodbye in another way such as lighting candles or planting a tree.
- If the child would like to, help them to create a memory box or decorate an area that the child can go to in order to think about and remember their loved one.
- Ask the child what activities they liked to do with their loved one and see if you can create new memories involving those types of activities.
- Let the child have a keepsake of the person who died such as a picture of them together, some clothing, or a piece of jewelry that they can use to remember by and comfort themselves.
- Art can allow children to express feelings that might be hard to talk about. Children may want to draw pictures of their loved one or write a letter to them.
The Dougy Center, How to Help a Grieving Child: http://www.dougy.org/grief-resources/how-to-help-a-grieving-child/
Practical Suggestions When Talking with Children about Death: http://www.griefspeaks.com/id5.html
Helping Children Cope With Loss, Death, and Grief: Tips for Teachers and Parents http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/griefwar.pdf
Compassionate Friends: Suggestions for Teachers and School Counselors: http://www.compassionatefriends.org/Brochures/suggestions_for_teachers_and_school_counselors.aspx
Shana Rubenstein is in her first year in the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Texas at Austin. She is grateful to be placed at The Christi Center for her internship and is looking forward to all she will be learning about supporting others to cope with and heal from grief.
As a former participant in a grief group for children, she is aware of the power of peer support and hopes to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who supports adolescents to gain resilience and positive coping skills through loss and life transitions.