Death is not a simple topic to completely grasp, even for adults. The concept of finality is challenging for children to understand. However, I am always amazed by children’s resilience when I have been involved in this counseling or support. The support needed to help a child understand and deal with grief will vary with the closeness of their relationship with the person and whether it was a surprise or not.
Pre-school children might run around playing at an uncle’s funeral, not in any kind of grief, blissfully unaware of the significance of death.
Primary-aged children begin to grasp non-functionality and the universality of death, its most confounding attribute. At that age, they start to understand that when someone dies, they’ll never be able to do things a living body can do. That everyone in the world is going to die at some point. With this understanding comes the weight of grief, which is usually hard on children. They react differently to grief, but parents can help them with sufficient child grief resources. Be careful not to think they are being disrespectful if they do not seem as full of grief as you think they should be. It is likely that they are not aware of its effect.
High school children fully understand the complexities and finality. They often feel that they can not show their emotions and rarely talk about it easily. Here we have a lot of advice on how to have difficult conversations with your children. There are many subjects that as parents we find uncomfortable and we look at some skills and techniques that make them easier to broach. They will take queues as to how to behave from you and how you handle things. Make sure that you find time to walk and talk with them. Let them see you upset and cry. Often they think that they need to hide emotions of hurt and vulnerability. They need to know that mature grown-ups express grief physically, and home is a safe space to do this. Grief is easier if it is shared.
Signs Your Child Is Having a Difficult Time With Grief
Being a complex and challenging emotion to sort through, children can react in varying ways. Some changes you’d notice would be more worrying than others. It’s essential to know the signs so you can ensure that your child is healthily dealing with grief. A study led by Ann-Sofie Bergman, associate professor at the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University, listed some key indicators. Below are some signs that, if they persist for any length of time, may mean that your child requires some form of additional support. Be aware it might not be someone close to them that has died. If it is a friend’s parent who has died, it might make them have dark thoughts about what if it was theirs.
- Loss of interest in playing with friends
- Failing classes
- Extra clinginess
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Regression to younger behaviors, such as wetting the bed or baby talk.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Changes in ways of playing, such as talking about death as they play.
Helping Children Cope With Grief
Anger, guilt, anxiety, and sadness are feelings a child might have to deal with as they grieve. They might also become overactive, quiet or talkative, or throw tantrums. To get your child through this time, you have to be sensitive to their feelings and needs. Below are some tips that can help.
- Find creative outlets for expressions. Not every child wants to talk about the death of a loved one. Other children might find expression through other means. Examples include journaling, listening to music, drawing, or painting. As long as the means are harmless, you could meet them where they are. This way, you won’t have to bear down on them to express their emotions verbally until they are ready to talk. Let the child lead the way in finding these creative outlets for expression. It is not to be forced. Teenagers will often find solace in music. This is not necessarily bad as they find that the music expresses things in a language they do not have. It, therefore, puts things in context.
- Be appropriately straight with the truth. Being cagey might seem like a good idea because it feels like you’re somehow protecting the child from some harsh realities. But that isn’t the case. Children can sense when you’re economical with the truth, uncomfortable about the topic, or trying to distract them. This might discourage the child from talking to you about their feelings. So you need to listen and be forthcoming in an empathetic way. However, it needs to be age-appropriate. You know your child and where they currently are in their development. Too much information may be overwhelming. To rein yourself in and avoid oversharing, stick to the questions your child asks.
- Bring up the concept of an afterlife. The idea that our loved ones are somewhere better can be comforting to even adults. It can do the same for children. When your child is grieving, bring up the concept of an afterlife and discuss it. You don’t necessarily need to go the religious way if you don’t want to. But you can explain to the child that loved ones live on in the hearts of people who loved them. I personally am a humanist. However, I always talk to my children about other faiths, and that although I think death is final, I might be wrong. For me, I can honor the person by thinking of them and helping those they leave behind.
- Honor the dead. Honoring the deceased can help your child find some closure. As young as age 3, children understand the concept of saying goodbye. However, this must not be forced. It has to be your child’s choice. Let them know that they can attend the memorial service if they so wish. And if the child chooses to attend, make sure you prepare him or her for what they might see. Make arrangements for your child to leave and go back home if the memorial becomes too much for them. You may ask a trusted adult to escort them home.
- Address changing routines. Death can directly alter a child’s day-to-day routine and not always negatively. For instance, parents who divide their time between home and hospital will have to stop when the sick passes away. This can mean that that parent will be home more to help their child grieve. It is vital to address this as it might lessen the child’s stress.
Children like structure, even more so when there is uncertainty. Although at this time it might seem that the world has collapsed around you, bedtimes and keep going with activities will really help your child understand that the world will continue, maybe differently, but very much a secure and familiar environment.
When to Seek Professional Help
If the person who has died is someone particularly close to the child, like a parent or sibling, professional help should be established immediately. Schools will have a vast amount of experience with this and appreciate the ability to intervene early. You will likely be dealing with your own grief, and children often feel they need to look after you before themselves. Every older teenage boy I have helped with grief has expressed that they need to remain strong for their parent and siblings. They, therefore, cope with their grief by putting it aside. Find someone they can talk to. A teacher or family friend. I have been in this position several times in a professional capacity and find an excuse to walk with them for 5 minutes to check in with them. It is their time to talk about themselves. They know that I don’t carry the grief with them, so can use me as a ‘download’ as they are not adding weight to someone else.
Grief can be consuming, crippling, and mind-altering. It’s ideal to know when your child’s grief has crossed the threshold of typical grief behavior. This will enable you to get your child professional help or get them into one of the grief groups for children around you. Below are some signs your child might need professional help.
- They think they’re talking to the dead person. Profound grief can trigger unexpected reactions. Your child may need professional help if they constantly insist that they’re talking to the deceased. If they do this once in a while, there might not be a cause for alarm.
- They desire to join the deceased. If your child expresses a desire to join the dead, take that statement very seriously. Seek out a doctor or mental health professional that can help.
- They imitate the dead’s persona. Trying to take on the deceased persona is another red flag. Requesting to eat what the deceased might have liked once in a while can even be considered a homage. That’s normal. But when the child constantly tries to talk, walk, dress, and gesture like the deceased, you may want to seek professional help.
- A prolonged period of depression. Sadness in grief is perfectly normal. Children can develop anxiety or depression due to the loss of a loved one. Protracted withdrawal from friends and activities they used to enjoy is a sign that they might need professional help. It may be that they have other issues and the grief can be used as a cover or is the final thing that has led them to depression.
Final Thoughts on Helping Your Child Understand and Deal With Grief
Grief isn’t something that happens once. Your child’s grief may seem to go and return. Some days he or she might go back to that place you thought they’d left behind. This is normal. Events such as graduation or marriage can renew grief. You need to be there for your child as best you can.
Also, amid all this, you shouldn’t forget to take care of yourself. It is easy to get consumed with trying to get your child through grief. You should take time and grieve too so that you are in a good place to be able to help anybody else.