Losing a loved one is difficult when you’re an adult, but a loss of this kind can be even more complicated for children.
If you’re a parent, you might feel tempted to leave such a difficult conversation until a death occurs. This is often not the best time for such conversations, as you might be trying to deal with grief yourself.
Children can feel a loss very strongly, but because they understand death differently from adults, their reactions may differ. Some of the things they say or do might seem very puzzling.
In this guide, we’ll look at how children grieve and how parents and other caring adults can help them cope with the loss.
How does grief affect a child?
Regardless of their age, a child or young person will react, feel, and express loss differently. There is no right or wrong way for it to happen, and it can change as they get older.
When children and young people go through a significant loss, they can feel a whole range of emotions. These are some of the most common grief reactions in children:
- Being withdrawn
- Feeling relief
They might also feel physically unwell, unable to sleep or concentrate. You shouldn’t be alarmed if your child reacts to a loss in any of these ways. It’s their way of dealing with grief and they are perfectly normal responses.
It’s also important to understand that it can take a while for grief to truly settle in for some children. Sometimes, a child might not feel it until a few years later, which is known as delayed grief in children.
Just like adults, children need time to grieve and be upset. An important thing to do is let them know you’re ready to listen and reassure them that they’re not alone in their pain. It’s also crucial that you don’t try to protect them from the grief you or other adults might be feeling.
A common reaction is that a child will blame themselves. Make a point of telling them that it wasn’t their fault and there was nothing they could have done to stop it from happening.
Signs of grief in children at different ages
It can be beneficial to know how children understand death at different stages of development. It varies depending on their age and is likely to change as a child develops emotionally and socially. Other factors can influence a child’s reaction, such as their personality, previous experiences with death, and the support they get from family members.
We’re going to look at some of the common reactions in children according to their age. Also, how adults can support them. Bear in mind that they will not move abruptly from one stage to the next, and some features may overlap.
Toddlers tend to have no understanding of death, but they will be aware that they’ve been separated from someone and will grieve the absence of a caregiver or parent. Reactions might include increased crying, changes in eating or sleeping, and decreased responsiveness. They might keep looking for their missing parent or caregiver and wait for them to return. Children of this age are most affected by the sadness of others.
It’s important to talk about the loss with your toddler, but you must start with short, simple, and truthful explanations. Then wait to see if they have any more questions.
Preschoolers are more curious about death and believe it is reversible or temporary. They might look upon it as something like sleeping. Feelings of guilt, thinking they’re responsible, worrying about who will take care of them, and being significantly affected by the sadness of surviving family members are all everyday things that might happen.
It’s not easy for such young children to put their feelings into words, which means they’re more likely to react through certain behaviours. These might include difficulty sleeping, aggression, irritability, bed-wetting, or thumb-sucking.
You can help by providing honest, direct, brief answers to their questions and lots of reassurance and affection. Also helpful is a consistent routine and opportunities to use play as their outlet for grieving.
As children get older, they are better able to understand the finality of death. By the time they reach the age of ten, they know that death happens to everyone and cannot be avoided. Oftentimes, they become very interested in the specifics of death and what happens to a person’s body.
Feelings they experience might include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, and worry about their own death. Children of this age might struggle to express their feelings. They will come out in behaviours such as poor performance in school, aggression, school avoidance, physical symptoms, regression, and withdrawal from friends.
You can help children of this age by encouraging the expression of their feelings through physical outlets, symbolic play, drawing, stories, and talking about the person who has died.
Teenagers tend to understand the concept of death but don’t have the experiences or coping skills. They might act out in anger, and show reckless or impulsive behaviours. They will likely experience a wide range of emotions but not know how to handle them or feel comfortable talking about them.
The best way to help a teenager is to encourage them to talk. If they don’t want to talk to you, try to persuade them to talk to teachers, friends, or a therapist. You must allow them to mourn, not try to make it all better or dismiss how they feel. Always be available for them but also respect their need to grieve in their own way.
What do children experiencing grief and loss need
Knowing what to do when children are experiencing grief and loss can make a big difference. It’s important to talk to your child using age-appropriate and explicit language. You don’t need to sugar coat it or use softer expressions such as passed on or gone to sleep. Such terms can be confusing.
Let them know it’s okay to feel however they feel, whether that’s angry, sad, worried, overwhelmed, or something else. Be empathetic, curious, and non-judgmental about how they’re feeling, focus on listening and providing emotional support.
Reassure them that they’re not alone, they can talk to you whenever they need to, and that you love them.
Here are a few more tips that can help:
- Try to keep everyday routines going as much as possible.
- Let your child’s school know what has happened and ask for their support.
- You can make them feel safe and relaxed by spending quality time with them.
- Encourage them to keep doing activities they enjoy.
Should a grieving child attend the funeral?
Whether or not a child should attend the funeral is a personal decision that depends on you and your child. Attending a funeral can help provide closure. However, not all children are ready for such an intense experience.
You should never force a child to attend a funeral, but make sure you prepare them for what they might see if they want to go.
It will help to explain that funerals are sad occasions, and some of the people there may be crying. You’ll also need to prepare them if there’s going to be a casket present.
Talk about the factors to be considered: the child’s age, who would be with them, their emotions, feelings, and understanding. The type of funeral service is important to consider too.
If you decide that a funeral is not the best way, there are many other ways to say goodbye. Sharing stories, planting a tree, or releasing balloons are excellent alternatives for providing closure for a child.
Who to talk to when a child is grieving
Some children might need outside help to deal with their grief. There are also people you’ll need to talk to and explain why your child might be behaving a little differently.
Grief has no timescale, but if a child or young person seems to be struggling to cope over a more extended period, they may need professional support. You can find help for you and your child through pre-bereavement counselling, emotional support services, grief counselling, your GP, and your child’s teacher.
Ways to support children dealing with grief
Grieving children do better when they have a healthy adult providing support and understanding them.
Have open conversations about death
Keeping communication open with children and young people can be a challenge. Talking to a child about death can make them feel better supported and more secure. It will also make them feel more comfortable asking questions, and they might feel more able to talk about their feelings.
Explore grief books for children
Books can be a valuable resource for talking to children about love, illness, death, and grief stages. See a few examples of books on grief and loss for children:
- The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
- Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman
- I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
- Ida Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso
Attend grief support groups for children
Teenagers and young people often find support groups helpful. It’s a chance for young people to get together and meet others who have also experienced the death of someone important in their life.
Try children’s grief activities
No two children react to loss in the same way, but various healing activities for children in grief may offer some help and relief during such a difficult time.
- Writing a journal: Find or purchase an empty journal or notebook and encourage your child to draw and/or write about how they’re feeling on any given day.
- Making a memory box: Find a box or some other type of container, have them decorate it, and then suggest they fill it with objects that give them good memories of the person they lost.
- Creating a photo board or album: Rather than keeping memories in a box, why not make a photo board or memory album?
- Make a memory bracelet: Using transitional objects like jewellery can be a good way for a child to tell a story about their deceased love one.
For complicated bereavement, seek children grief counselling
Complicated bereavement is the term used when a bereaved person appears to be stuck in their grief process, or their grief has become a way of life. There are no limits as to how prolonged grieving should last or what it should consist of. In such cases, families might need additional professional support and help.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help and advice when you feel you and your family need it. Check this list of Additional Links and Support Services to get an expert by your side.