Every day, a child’s mother, father, grandmother, grandfather or sibling dies.
Experiencing death while still a child is common, but that in no way makes it less difficult.
There are ways to help a child deal with grief.
When a child loses a loved one to death, that loss can have a profound effect that can even last a lifetime.
Emotional, psychological and physical trauma can occur and effect how a child views the world.
If grief is talked about and a child is given the proper coping tools, is surrounded by love and support, then the negative impact can be lessened.
But too often, adults are at a loss. They’re grieving themselves, and they don’t know what to say or do to comfort a child.
They don’t know how to tell a child that someone they love has died.
They don’t know how much to share with them–they either tell too much or too little.
Adults can simply “freeze” and stop communicating, and the child is left to grapple with their sorrow alone.
They can also insist that the child be happy and move on–because it makes them feel less guilty. They try to live life through their child–but children also have their ups and downs when it comes to grief. They can’t be puppets that we demand to be “okay,” because we need them to be.
Many people expect and demand that children are expected to go on with their lives.
They want them to hurry and go back to school. They don’t want them to get behind. How sad. Something as profound as a parent, sibling, or grandparent dying is so much more significant than an A in algebra.
Just days or even hours after a grandparent dies, many children are expected to return to school, sports and activities. Adults someone need the child to be busy so that they can deal with “adult” matters of business and details, but the child has his own grieving process to go through.
Children have so many issues to deal with–growing up, adolescence, fitting in, weight issues, pressure to smoke or smoke pot, divorce, family issues, academic and social issues–and it starts at a very young age.
When are they supposed to feel safe and free to open up and talk?
When can they express how much their miss their grandad?
How Do You Tell a Child That a Loved One Has Died?
Keep it simple. Use “died”, not “He is sleeping.”
Allow your child to express raw feelings freely or ask questions.
Answer questions honestly and simply. Do not go into detail, unless asked.
If the death was due to a violent crime, explain that they are safe now, nd you will do all you can to make sure they stay safe.
Offer a comfort object–blanket, doll, teddy bear. Even if they’re “older,” something cuddly can reduce anxiety.
If the body is suitable for viewing, allow the child to see your deceased loved one, if requested. Prepare the child for what he or she will see.
Tell your child what will be happening in the next few days.
Give your child choices in what to do. Some children want to go to school the day of the death–it’s comforting and feels “normal.” Give them a choice. Whenever they return, inform the school of the death before your child returns.This makes their teachers and classmates more sensitive. Most schools have a school counselor that can also assist and be made aware of the situation.
Reassure your child that he or she will be cared for and explain the plan.
Children sometimes open up easier if they’re doing something with their hands–playing cars or helping bake cookies–it can take awhile for them to feel safe–and they feel less on the spot if they don’t have to look at you but can pretend to be “busy” with their hands.
Don’t Know How to Talk To Your Child: Here’s some Easy Conversation Starters:
I’m sorry your grandmother/papa/mom/dad/sister died.
What was your dad/mom/brother like?
Tell me about your__________.
What was his favorite food/book/thing you did together?
What do you miss the most? What is the hardest time of day for you?
I cannot know how you feel, but I remember how I felt when my __________ died.
Whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here.
I’m thinking about you especially today because I’m aware that today is your mother’s birthday (anniversary of the death, your birthday, etc).
If you don’t want to talk, we can still spend time together.
WORDS THAT CAN HURT:
I know just how you feel. I know just how you feel…my dog died last year. Lick your wounds and move on. You’ll get over it. It will be okay. Don’t think about it. You are better off without him. Don’t cry. It’s your fault. God took him so he wouldn’t be in pain. Tears won’t bring her back. Be strong. Forget about it. You are the man/woman of the house now. You should feel ….(proud, relieved, happy, sad, etc.)
Children May Express Grief Differently Tnan Adults:
Their emotions may experience highs and lows. They may laugh inappropriately–even at the memorial service. Don’t think this is because they don’t care. It’s difficult for a child to figure out how to handle their emotions. They may avoid sleep–or a teen may sleep all the time. They may zone out and not seem to hear anyone talking to them.
Become clingy and panic if you’re not home on time or don’t pick them up on time. Act rough or violent toward a sibling or friend. Defiantly disobey.
Teens may become daredevils–drive fast, extreme sports, breaking and entering–anything to feel “alive”
They may even try to “test” your love.
When Do You Seek Professional Help?
When the symptoms (lack of sleep, depression, agression) continue for weeks or months and grow in intensity.
When they can no longer function in school or around other people
When they isolate themselves for too long
When they become dangerous to themselves or others
They fixate on death, experiment on animals, or are exhibiting cruel behavoir
What do you do if you suspect your child or teen is not handling grief well?
Talk to the school counselor, your pediatrician, or clergy
Get a recommendation for a therapist who has helped children through grief.
Don’t settle for just a prescription. Talking and expressing their emotions is crucial to the healing process.
Don’t go just one or two times and think your child is “better.” Follow through and be consistent.
The Best Advice?
Be patient. Expect some some highs and lows. Share your own grief journey. Listen. Reassure. Be there. Provide help if or when it’s needed. Let them know it’s okay not to be able to handle this all by yourself–we all need each other.
In the United States, approximately 4.8 million children under 18
are grieving the death loss of a parent.
I’m Carol O’Dell, author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, available on Amazon. I hope you’ll visit my blog again.