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How to help children cope with grief

Grieving the loss of a loved one is difficult for most people, but the process can be even harder for children. Children don’t yet have the emotional maturity or life experience needed in order to make sense of the complicated mix of emotions that come with grief. Whether grieving the loss of a beloved pet or a cherished family member, it’s important to remember that children need extra help processing their feelings. 

Grieving children often feel alone, misunderstood, and confused. It can be challenging for adults to know what to say or do to comfort a child, especially while dealing with their own grief. Children’s Grief Awareness Day was created to “bring attention to the fact that support can make all the difference in the life of a grieving child.” In honor of this day, we’ve provided our tips for helping a child process their grief.  

The guidance below was reviewed by Danielle Larkin, DNP (Doctor of Nurse Practice), and Assistant Clinical Professor at Auburn University. As a certified hospice and palliative pediatric nurse, Danielle understands the complexities of talking to children about death. 

How do you talk to a child about death?

​​Death is a natural part of life but talking about death is never easy. 

“Most adults tend to have difficulty when trying to communicate the concept of death to a child,” said Danielle.

“Depending on their age or developmental stage, a child might be aware of death but not fully understand the concept. The notion of a loved one being ‘gone forever’ is intangible to most children. As adults, we may not be able to protect a child from the pain of loss, but we can help a child build healthy coping skills to deal with their emotions by making them feel safe and allowing them to express their feelings.”

Danielle said it’s important to use direct language and avoid using vague terms or euphemisms that could confuse a child. 

“It’s important to avoid terms such as, ‘passed away,’ ‘crossed over,’ or ‘went to sleep’ because it can be scary to a child and interfere with their ability to develop coping skills. Being honest, telling the truth about your emotions, and using more concrete words such as ‘death’ or ‘died’ will help aid in the grieving process.”

The key is to be honest and direct in order to establish trust. 

“​​If you have an older child, they may understand the concept and permanence of death but still have questions,” said Danielle. “As adults, we need to be able to answer those questions as openly and honestly as possible, and we must be okay with saying, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s important to gauge the maturity level of the child as well as how much information they can receive at one time.”

How long does grief last for a child?

For many people, grief never completely goes away; it just becomes more manageable over time. The same can be true for children, especially if they lose a parent. Grief may seem to get better, then worse, throughout childhood and into adulthood. Grief may resurface during holidays, birthdays, and significant life milestones like graduations and weddings. 

How do children grieve at different ages?

Children grieve differently at different ages and cognitive development stages.

For instance, babies and toddlers don’t know what death is. They will, however, experience feelings of abandonment and insecurity if a regular presence in their life stops showing up. They will also sense the grief of those around them, without understanding the reason. 

Preschool-age children may not understand that death is permanent and expect a person to come back to life the way they do in cartoons. 

School-aged children may understand the concept of death but can’t imagine it happening to anyone they know. When it does happen, the shock can cause them to worry about other family members or create fear about their own mortality. 

Teenagers know logically that death is inevitable. However, a teen’s fluctuating hormones and emotional changes can impact how they handle grief. For some, the need to show they’re independent and “not a child” may keep them from asking for support. Also, a need to fit in and appear “normal” can cause some teens to keep difficult feelings to themselves. 

Older children may be able to express their emotions in words or through asking questions, while for young children, their grief is usually shown through their behavior. 

How does grief affect a child?

“Children grieve differently than adults,” said Danielle. “Children can express sadness by crying one minute then engaging in playful activity the next — this is their way of not becoming overwhelmed trying to circumnavigate their emotions.”

Most children work through grief without any long-term issues. Others, however, may experience emotional problems that can persist throughout their life. Those who struggle with grief may have a hard time forming healthy relationships, have difficulty focusing, or act out in negative ways. Ongoing issues could occur if a child doesn’t deal with feelings such as guilt or anger. For example, if a child survives a tragedy that killed a loved one or somehow believes they had something to do with the death (such as by thinking a mean thought), the feelings of guilt and shame can affect them throughout their life. It’s important for caregivers to help children process their feelings in order to avoid them becoming ongoing issues. 

Signs of grief in children

Children of all ages may have difficulty verbalizing their emotions. It’s important for adults to watch for signs that the child is having trouble handling grief. For young children who can’t yet express their feelings in words, it’s especially important to notice erratic behavior. 

Some signs of grief in children include: 

  • Acting younger than they are — this could involve baby talk, bed-wetting, or infantile demands
  • Inability to sleep or bad dreams
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Loss of interest in normal activities and hobbies
  • Withdrawal from friends or loved ones
  • A decrease in academic performance
  • Fear of being alone
  • Increased irritability or tantrums 
  • Blaming themselves/negative self-talk
  • Anxiety about the health/safety of loved ones
  • Pretending they are talking to/can see the deceased long after the death

“Signs that your child is not able to cope with grief may indicate a distressing adjustment disorder,” said Danielle. “Children with an adjustment disorder exhibit a long-term — six months or more — reaction to a loss. A child may have behavioral problems and exhibit signs of anxiety and/or depression. Under or untreated adjustment disorders may lead to chronic anxiety, major depressive disorder, and possible substance abuse.”

How do you help a grieving child?

Talking and listening to a child is the best way to help. Children need help processing their emotions and require a safe space in which to express them. Support them as they adapt to life without this person or pet. While parents or caregivers need to be part of this, sometimes it’s helpful to get extra support from a qualified grief counselor. 

How to find grief counseling for children

It may be best for your child to talk to a professional with experience in helping children deal with grief. If you decide to look for a grief counselor, ask friends or family members for personal referrals. You can also ask your child’s physician for trusted local resources specializing in grief in children. Online forums and therapy directories are also good sources. If your child is school-age, ask their school guidance counselor for recommendations. 

Your child’s grief counselor may suggest individual therapy, family therapy, or group sessions with other bereaved children. Sessions with other children are often helpful so kids can see they aren’t alone. They may also give you tools and homework to do between sessions. Some grief activities for kids to do in therapy or at home include:

  • Drawing pictures of the deceased 
  • Creating a book of drawings, photos, or other items that show happy memories 
  • Using play to talk about or express emotions
  • Reading books about grief
  • Coming up with positive ways to memorialize their loved one, such as making a favorite meal or doing something they often did together

Set a good example

Remember that children look to adults and often follow their example on how to behave. 

“As adults, it is fine to cry and show our sadness; however, we must remain calm when talking about death because many children will mirror the actions of the adults around them,” said Danielle.

By sharing your own feelings and creating a safe space for the child to share theirs, you’ll be modeling healthy behavior that will help them as they move through the grieving process. 

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