Helping Children With Grief
November 05, 2012
When a loved one dies, helping kids cope with their loss is challenging, particularly as you work through your own grief. A child's ability to understand death, and the manner in which you approach the topic, depends on the child's age. While each child is different, basic guidelines apply.
Ages 5 or 6
Children at this age view the world literally. Avoid phrases about the loved one such as "went away" or "went to sleep" or even "lost." Because young kids think so literally, such phrases might make them fearful of sleep or afraid whenever someone goes away.
Instead, explain death in basic and concrete terms. For example, if someone was terminally ill or old, explain that their body wasn't working anymore. If someone dies suddenly in an accident, clarify that this sudden event caused the person's body to stop working. You may have to clarify that “the body no longer works”, means the person can no longer eat, breath, see, think, or move.
Even after you explain that death is final, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is, or when the person is coming back. Calmly repeat that the person has died and can't return. This may also be a time to share beliefs about an afterlife or heaven.
Ages 6 to 10
By this age, kids recognize death's finality, but do not understand all aspects of death. For example, a 9-year-old might believe that by behaving or making a wish, Grandpa won't die. They deal best with death when given simple, accurate, and honest explanations about what happened. As kids mature into teenagers they realize that everyone eventually dies, regardless of behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do.
Ages 11 to 18
As your pre-teen's or teenager's understanding about death develops, he or she philosophizes about why their loved one had to die. Children of this age begin to explore the meaning of life. Teens sometimes experience guilt, especially if one of their peers died. In all cases, the best thing you can do is to encourage expression and sharing of grief.
A major concern about grieving children is whether they should attend the funeral. Phyllis Silverman and Madelyn Kelly in "A Parent's Guide to Raising Grieving Children" state, “Letting your child take part in the funeral service of a deceased loved one is one of the most comforting things you can do for them.” It is best to explain to the child that they will witness things such as other adults crying or a casket being buried, and let them decide if they want to attend. A child younger than three should not attend services because they do not understand the event or its meaning, and may distract others.
Throughout the grieving process, encourage children to express their feelings, concerns, or fears about death. Help open up discussion about loss and grief through movies and books. Good non-fiction book choices include When Someone Dies by S. Greenlee, for ages 9-12, and When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing by M.E. Gootman.
These fiction choices help children ages 8-18 and have also been made into movies:
- Bridge to Terabithia
- Akeelah and the Bee
- The Harry Potter books.
For younger children, read from What on Earth to do When Someone Dies by Trevor Romain. Animated films that include death and loss, like "The Lion King" or "Finding Nemo", may also be beneficial.
by: Rachel Schnebly
Some children process emotions in an active way. Try creating artwork, planting a memorial tree, listening to or writing music, or raising money for a monument. These activities help children identify their feelings and open paths for communication. Discuss their accomplishments, what they represent, and how they make them feel.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, normal activities provide a distraction and normalcy to help children deal with grief. Encourage, but never force, a child to participate in normal activities such as hanging out with friends or playing sports. Help the child get involved with a school activity, or extend the opportunity to do something he or she has always wanted to do.
Sometimes, no matter how much support you give or what methods you try, a child will have an extremely difficult time coping with a death and professional help is needed. Watch for any radical changes in behavior such as extreme anger or violence, withdrawing, extreme anxiety, or a significant drop in school grades. A school guidance counselor, mental health organization, or doctor, can provide assistance and recommendations.