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A Child's Grief
Grief is complicated, messy, confusing, and painful. It is hard enough for us to understand grief within ourselves. It is often even more difficult to know how to support children through their grief. Yet, it is critical that children have the support they need when someone dies. Understanding how children view and respond to death can help adults develop strategies to facilitate healthy grieving and coping.
Many factors impact how a child will understand and react to death. Age, their relationship to the deceased, whether the death was expected or sudden, individual personality, family structure, and peer support are all factors. It is also important to remember that just like adults, each child will grieve differently.
Age and Developmental Stages
Young children may not understand what death is, or that it is permanent. In their games and cartoons, things “die” and then come back to life. Shock, confusion, and anger are common responses. Without the words and ability to express how they feel, young children typically act out their grief through behaviors. Young children may become anxious, irritable, and regress backwards in their development (for example, start wetting the bed again, or wanting toys they had outgrown). They may ask for the person who died and repeat questions often.
School age children think in concrete ways and often have difficulty understanding death. They may think the death was their fault, or that they could have prevented it. They also may ask repetitive questions, not want to be alone, and experience frequent worry and anxiety. While they are better able to express themselves by talking, school age children may still respond primarily through changes in behaviors. It is not uncommon for children to switch quickly between a wide range of emotions. They may behave very well, or very badly, or alternate between the two extremes. Changes in sleep, eating habits, and physical complaints are also common.
Teenagers are able to understand death and think about the consequences. They may withdraw, or want to spend time with their friends instead of family. They may begin engaging in risky behaviors. Teens may be uncomfortable discussing death with their parents. Death can increase feelings of confusion about their identity, role in the family, and their place in the world.
Talking with Children About Death
Whatever their age, children need support and guidance from adults as they cope with the death of a loved one.
Be honest. Children are aware of more than you think. What they don’t hear directly from you, they will find out in other ways. Be honest when speaking with children about death, as after a loss it is more important than ever that they feel trust for the adults in their lives. Use simple language and check in often to see what they understood. Don’t avoid the words “dead” and “died,” as other terms may add to confusion about what being dead means.
Let them ask questions. It is important for children to feel safe, and to be allowed to ask whatever questions they have. Let them know that any question they have is okay. They may ask the same question over and over. This is normal and indicates the need for reassurance.
Provide reassurance. Children of all ages need reassurance during a tragedy. Help make children feel safe. Keep routines familiar and make as few changes as possible. Young children may need lots of physical contact and nurturing. Older kids may need help thinking through how things will change and identifying people and activities that help them feel safe and supported in different circumstances.
Give them control. The death of a loved one can feel like the ultimate loss of control. Give children choices whenever you can, and include them in decisions that are appropriate to their age. For example, a young child may be able to help pick flowers. A teenager may want to help plan a service. Even small daily choices can be important, like what to have for breakfast or which chore to do first.
Let kids be kids. Children are not little adults. They grieve differently. It is common for kids to switch quickly from talking about death to playing outside. They may not talk much at first, but bring it up often months later. Kids may not be comfortable talking directly about the death, but often act out their feelings and memories through play or drawings.
When to Seek Help
Grief is a normal reaction to a loss, and just like adults, it is important to normalize grief and not rush to “treat” or “cure” it. There is no time frame or roadmap for grief. But there are some signs that additional support may be needed. These include any talk of suicide or harming oneself or others, engaging in risky behaviors, drug and alcohol use, significant withdrawal or refusal to participate in daily activities, significant ongoing behavior problems, or persistent physical complaints.
If you are concerned that a child needs more help than you can provide, there are a variety of resources and options. Children often benefit from support groups where they can meet other children who have experienced a similar loss. Your primary care physician or mental health professional can help address more serious concerns. For a list of resources, visit: https://childrengrieve.org/find-support
Local grief support for children & teens: http://dreamsfromdrake.org/about/our-mission/