Children cope with grief in many ways. Having strong and persistent emotions may be a new feeling, depending upon the relationship and attachment level they have with the deceased; and the process of bereavement may be fraught with difficulty. Initial reactions like sadness, disbelief, anger, and intense frustration at the news are to be expected, followed by feelings of shock, confusion, numbness, and panic.
As the news sinks in, they may appear distracted, have trouble concentrating, a lack of motivation and exhibit poor performance in school. They might feel physically sick, withdraw from friends and family, display challenging behaviour, or ask a lot of questions. It is normal for children coping with grief to experience a period of unsettled emotions.
How can we help children process their loss and develop the skills to adapt and adjust to life without their loved one? Here are some suggestions:
Acknowledging their loss and helping them identify their feelings.
Sometimes a child will just need to hear that they are not alone in having these intense and confusing feelings of loss. Remembering the loved one together can help a child cope with the realization. Consider creating a memorial together, a framed photograph, or a memory box the child can assemble and access when they need to.
Offering support, comfort, and reassurance.
Assure the child that they are safe and loved and that what has happened is not their fault in any way. Hold their hand as they make their way through grief. Children may react to loss by being unusually clingy to their parents and caregivers. Allow some extra time for them, remain as close by as necessary, and support their journey through grief in a patient, understanding way.
Talking about our own feelings about the loss and sharing our own struggles.
Sometimes a reserved child will be more eager to speak about loss if they are exposed to an adult’s thoughts. Encourage them to navigate their emotions in a healthy manner by modeling and sharing yours.
Allowing children to ask questions and helping them to find the answers.
Regardless of their age, many questions a child asks can be frustrating and have no real answers. Try to find commonality in the questions, allow the child to explore their grief and be patient, honest, and open in your responses.
Spending time together and retaining a normal routine.
You must remember to look after yourself while you grieve too. Be intentional about self-care and use the opportunity to help the child understand why it is important to stay healthy, eat a nourishing diet and maintain a good sleep pattern, especially in times of distress.
Play with them.
Children learn through play, and at distressing times in their lives such as processing grief, their style of play may change to include darker topics and themes of loss. This is a perfectly normal psychological reaction. Encourage the child to act out life’s scenarios using their toys and be there to play alongside them. Allow them to direct their play and help them to understand their emotions with positive reinforcement and open, honest reactions.
Depending on the age of the child and the bond they have with the deceased, the initial grieving period may vary in length and intensity. Allow the child to cycle through the stages of grief in a healthy environment. It is important to use age-appropriate language when discussing death and bereavement and to steer clear of vague terms like ‘they have gone to sleep’ or ‘passed away’ or ‘we lost him’. Instead, choose solid terms like ‘death’ and ‘they have died’. This will help the child understand more clearly the ramifications and permanence of death and will avoid any upsetting misconceptions.
Grief follows no set timeline and symptoms of bereavement can take a few weeks or months to be displayed so pay close attention to the emotional well-being of the child for some time after the loss. Some children may require an extra level of support through counseling. Grief and loss may last a lifetime, and therapy can help the whole family heal together.
Photo credit: Pixabay, JillWellington