Grief is something children experience. They are not too young to grieve. They tend to cope with grief better than adults expect them to and their responses to grieve will vary with age and degree of development.
Children often express their feelings through their behaviour, in play and in drawings, rather than in words.
Generally speaking, children absorb concepts about grief slowly and a little at a time. It is normal for a child to be sad for a little time, then go outside and play happily. This may cause adults to think that they are not grieving. They are in fact, protecting themselves from the intense pain of grief, by allowing themselves to feel it in small doses.
They may continue to ask questions repeatedly over weeks and months. Questions need to be answered honestly, without having to go into too much graphic detail. Sometimes we do not know the answers to the questions being asked and it is ok to say so. Children observe the way that the adults around them are grieving. It is ok for them to see adults crying and feeling the same pain that they feel. Teenagers might naturally gravitate more towards their peer group and even social media to share their grief.
How any child or young person grieves when someone they love has died is affected by many variables, such as:
- developmental stage;
- usual reactions to stress and emotion;
- relationship with the person who has died;
- earlier experiences of loss or death;
- family circumstances;
- how others around them are grieving; and
- amount of support around them.
There will be times when some children regress in behavior and development. Boys tend to internalise their sadness, while girls tend to cry. Children may look for guidance from adults or older children on how to cope with grief. Following the loss of a loved one, it is vitally important for children to feel safe, secure, understood, and loved.
Most children or young people will not generally require counselling. It may be helpful for parents and caregivers to consult with a counsellor or therapist to get support for themselves, to better support the child and gain insight into their specific needs.
Talking to the Child about Death
- be aware of the child’s level of comprehension;
- answer questions honestly, simply, and clearly, keeping in mind the emotions your answer may evoke;
- younger children may need the same question answered several times, be person;
- accept the child’s feelings without telling them how they should feel;
- when you do not know an answer, it may be best to just say you do not know;
- do not use euphemisms. To a child, “lost” could indicate that the deceased can be found; “sleeping” might suggest that the person will wake up;
- ask the child what they are thinking. Find out what he/she has heard;
- explain to the child what is likely to happen at the funeral and how grief works;
- it is possible that the child will continue to ask questions and seek explanations about the death as time passes;
- you can share both happy and sad memories. You may want to start a scrapbook of photos and mementos;
- talk about some of your feelings. Help them understand that grief reactions are natural and normal in adults and will not last forever;
- make sure the child understands your sadness is not his/her fault;
- reassure the child that she/he will be looked after;
- ensure the child knows there will be no secrets hidden from them, that they are a part of the family, and that you will all get through this together; and
- maintain continuity and consistency in the child’s life. Let your children know that it is okay for them to play with their friends or watch their favourite TV show. By doing so, you can let them know that life goes on, with some things remaining the same.
Helping the Child through Grief
- ensure that the child feels protected, loved, and safe;
- try to make the child feel safe enough to experience grief;
- never ignore or censor a child’s grief experience;
- find ways to help your child express his/her feelings both verbally and non-verbally (for example drawing);
- school staff should be informed that the child has experienced a loss and to monitor their progress and behaviour;
- watch out for ‘magical thinking’, such as a child who thinks an act they have done or something they have said caused the death. Identify and correct misconceptions;
- assure the child, if necessary, that it is normal to feel angry or upset when someone we love has died, but this has nothing to do with their death or dying;
- you should be aware that a child’s ability to remember a loved one in their absence may be limited. Keepsakes and mementos can help the child remember the deceased by means of photographs, commemorating special dates, and providing keepsakes or mementos;
- as a result of the death, the child may express feelings not only about the death but also about the changes you and your family/social network are experiencing;
- maintain as much normality as possible. Be disciplined and set limits;
- allow the child to assist you in an age-appropriate manner. It is unfair to expect a child to be the ‘man of the house’ or the ‘little mother.’ This can interfere with their grieving process; and
- be optimistic with the child that even if things seem chaotic for a while, calm and peace will eventually return.
“Joy and pain can live in the same house. Neither should deny the other.”
– Tan Neng
Adapted from ‘Bereavement and Support.’ Washington, DC. Taylor and Francis. Hughes, M. (1995).
Source: ‘Healing After Loss’. Calvary Bereavement Counselling Service (2020)