By Callie Sanders, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.
Did you know that children experience grief differently than adults? Most children are aware of death even if they do not understand it fully. Experiencing grief firsthand can be very confusing to children at any age. They may go from upset and crying one minute, to play and positivity the next. Encouraging the child to express their feelings nurtures positive coping skills that facilitate healthy grieving.
One way to help is to be aware of the age of the child when discussing death and loss. According to psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, “Children understand that death is bad, but the concept of ‘forever’ is just not present.” Younger children may regress to behaviors such as bed wetting or having accidents after potty training. They may also become anxious and clingy after the loss of a loved one.
Be selective about how much information you share with the child. Be direct and do not use euphemisms such as a loved one “went to sleep.” This not only makes a child scared of bedtime, but it can also interfere with healthy coping strategies.
Teenagers experience grief differently than adults as well. They may feel waves of grief and begin to withdraw from family and activities they enjoy. Providing children of all ages with patience and stability will help develop healthy coping strategies.
It is important to remember that children are not always able to express their emotions verbally. Other useful outlets include appropriate play, drawing pictures, creating a scrapbook, looking at photo albums, and storytelling. Draw a picture of memories of the individual who was lost. Create a scrapbook of the deceased loved one so the child will have a special creation to look back on when they are sad. Allow the child to journal so they can express their thoughts and feelings about the loss.
Giving a child several outlets encourages them to work through their grieving process. It is also important to stick to a routine. Even if it is difficult, make sure some of their usual routines happen. For instance, allow the child time to play with friends or attend an extracurricular activity. This will give the child a sense of stability and comfort.
Lastly, let children work through their grief in their own way while keeping in mind they may not be ready to open up about it. Grieving is not linear. Be supportive and leave the door open for children to share their thoughts and feelings about loss whenever it feels right.
Most importantly, remember you are not alone. If you feel your child needs additional guidance while grieving a loss, reach out to your school’s Youth First Mental Health Professional or contact your pediatrician. Also, Youth First offers a bereavement program called Camp Memories for children ages 6-18 who have experienced the death of a family member or loved one. Visit https://youthfirstinc.org/portfolio-item/campmemories/ to learn more about Camp Memories.