Discover Common Ways to Help Your Children Cope with Grief and Loss

Helping Children Cope with Grief and Loss

expert parenting tips to help children cope with griefA child may experience grief and loss due to the death of a family member, close friend, or beloved pet; parental separation or divorce; military deployment of a parent; move from familiar surroundings; diagnosis of a chronic illness; or other life-altering event. Parents often underestimate the impact of loss on children, who have fewer coping skills than adults.

Authored by Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS – Dr. Mom®
Professional Speaker on Topics such as Positive Parenting, Work Life Balance, Breastfeeding Promotion and Support, Personal Growth, and Family Spirituality

The following strategies can help your child experience emotional healing in the face of adversity, develop resilience, and accept that death and loss are part of the cycle of life:

Offer your example. Your own grief response has a major effect on how your child reacts to loss. Your openness in sharing your thoughts and feelings during times of loss shows your child how to express painful emotions in a healthy way. Emphasize that you will be there for her as your family copes with the loss together. Seeking help for your own grief will enable you to be more emotionally available to your hurting child.

Listen and ask questions. Create an emotional atmosphere of warmth, acceptance, and understanding to help your child feel safe sharing her sadness, fear, anxiety, or anger. Explain that you want to know what your child is feeling and how you can help her. Often, young children will express concern about who will care for them, take them to school, etc. They may believe that their negative thoughts, words, or feelings have caused their parents’ divorce or a person’s death. Reassure your child that she did not cause the death or loss, could not have prevented it, and cannot do anything to bring the person back.

Consider your child’s age. Tailor your explanation to your child’s age and developmental level. Use simple terms and give honest, accurate information. Explain that the person has died and won’t be coming back. Ask your child what she understands about the situation so you can correct misperceptions. Avoid the use of euphemisms, such as “sleep,” when discussing death, as this can be highly confusing to young children and create fear about going to sleep. Similarly, saying a deceased person has “departed” or “gone from us” makes it sound like they will return again. Be patient when young children repeat the same questions as they try to grasp the finality of the situation. Remember to offer liberal hugs, cuddles, and physical expressions of your love amid the crisis.

Allow children to attend the funeral or memorial service. The decision whether to have a young child participate in a funeral service is an individual one. If your child will attend the funeral, prepare her for what to expect, and support her throughout the process. Explain that the service is a celebration of the loved one’s life and a way to comfort one another. Allow your child to help plan or participate in the service, if desired. Let her decide whether or not she wants to view the body.

Recognize that grief is a process and hard work. Everyone grieves in their own way, and each child has a unique style of coping. There is no orderly pattern or specific timetable for navigating the stages of grief that eventually lead to acceptance and readjustment. Look for children’s books that deal with loss, and allow young children to act out the event in dramatic play. Maintain a normal routine, including reassuring bedtime rituals, to give your child essential structure and stability through the grieving process. Remind her that her feelings of hurt and loss won’t last forever. Be prepared for her grief reaction to resurface at holidays, anniversaries or during times of other loses.

Share your spiritual beliefs about death and loss. Share your Christian beliefs about death and loss in simple terms. You can explain that people go to be with God after they die and remain forever under God’s loving care. Explain that God doesn’t make bad things happen and that God shares our sorrow and comforts us when we are sad. Help your child appreciate that our loved one will live on in our memories and invite her to commemorate their life by drawing a picture, making a scrapbook or photo album, planting a tree, or writing a poem.

Seek professional help. If your child displays severe or prolonged emotional, behavioral or learning problems after a loss, or complains of health problems, ask your pediatrician for a referral for professional help.

Common Behaviors among Children Experiencing a Loss

Children who experience a significant loss may display a wide variety of grief reactions, including:

  • Regression, such as clingy behavior, needing to be rocked or held, or wanting to sleep in the parent’s bed.
  • Sadness, crying, withdrawal, or lack of interest in usual activities and play.
  • Fear and anxiety, including separation anxiety.
  • Poor school performance and difficulty concentrating.
  • Difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, or physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches.
  • Acting out behavior, including irritability and angry outbursts.

Children’s Understanding of Death

A child’s ability to understand the concept of death varies by age, maturity level, life experiences, and faith beliefs.

Infants and Toddlers. While children under two years have no concept of death, they react to separation from their caretaking adults and notice when their caretakers are sad.

Preschoolers. Preschoolers do not understand the finality of death and think it is reversible or temporary. They may repeatedly ask when the deceased person is coming back. Because they believe their negative thoughts have power, they may feel responsible when something bad happens.

6 to 10 years. School-aged children can understand the finality of death, but tend to think it happens to others.

Pre-teens and Teens. Older children and youth understand that death happens to everyone. They often seek comfort from peers, as well as their family.

Box: Rainbows (www.rainbows.org) is an international, not-for-profit organization that fosters emotional healing among grieving children and their families. Many churches sponsor Rainbows Support Groups.

Copyright © 2012 Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS