Helping Children Grieve


By Amber Russell, LCSW, Courier & Press, March 29, 2016 –

Dealing with the death of a friend or family member is something very hard for adults to cope with, much less a child. When adults are experiencing a loss, it may be hard to know how to help a child who is also grieving.

The first thing to keep in mind is that grief is not a problem that needs to be fixed or bypassed; it is an experience we live through.

Secondly, just like an adult, a child’s grief is impacted by a variety of factors. A child’s relationship with the deceased, how the person died, the child’s age and developmental level, support system, past experiences with death and personality are all factors to be taken into consideration.

Regardless of the age of the child experiencing loss, here are a few things you should consider:

1. Validate feelings and let them know it’s normal to feel a variety of emotions while grieving. Reactions can include sadness, anger, guilt, fear, relief and many others.

2. There is no time limit on grief; everyone goes through stages in their own time. Children who have lost a loved one might re-experience the loss when they have certain milestones such as getting their driver’s license, graduating, getting married or even doing something that the deceased person enjoyed.

3. Be aware of your own need to grieve. Many adults hide their sadness because they don’t want to make a child feel worse. This might send a message that being sad or crying is not OK. Being open about your own grief will help normalize feelings for the child and help them be more open to talking with you. But also be aware that if you are struggling with extreme emotions, it could cause the child anxiety and make them feel they need to support you. Make sure you examine your own coping skills and get help if needed.

4. When talking with the child, do not lie about the cause of death or what death means. Often adults will avoid words like “dead” or “died” and instead use phrases like “passed away” or “gone to a better place,” which can cause confusion. Some adults might avoid having conversations about the deceased loved one or death in general. This may lead a child to think the subject of their departed loved one or death is taboo, causing them to keep feelings and unanswered questions inside.

5. This may be the child’s first experience with death, and aside from feeling sad, they may feel anxious about the whole process. Talk with your child about what to expect at the funeral, memorial service or burial. Encourage them to ask questions. If we don’t listen to and talk with our kids about death and all that goes along with it, they might assume things or fill in the blanks with false images or expectations.

6. Talk with your child about healthy ways to cope with their feelings and remember their loved one. As a school social worker, I have used some of the following ways to help children express grief: drawing, keeping a journal, putting together a photo album or creating a memory box with pictures and mementos of their loved one.

7. There are also support groups and age-appropriate books that explore grief. A few children’s books I have used in the past are: “When Dinosaurs Die” by Laurie Krasny, “Tear Soup” by Pat Schwiebert and “When Someone Very Special Dies” by Marge Heegaard.

Talking with a child about death is never easy, but with openness, support and love, you can guide them through this life experience.

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