How to support your child through grief
Every year so many - too many - children lose someone they love. Whether it’s a beloved grandparent or a pet or even, devastatingly, a parent or sibling, children the world over are left dearly missing a special person and an even more special relationship in their lives. As parents or carers, we want to help them deal with these feelings.
Death can be a confusing, conflicting and deeply troubling experience for children, as it’s something they understand in far more depth than we give them credit for. Despite this, their behaviour when they are grieving is often not the same as what we experience as an adult. It can seem confronting, challenging or even strange.
To try to understand all of this, and help our little ones move through their feelings and mourn the loss of that special someone, we spoke to clinical psychologist, Dr. Bec Jackson. Dr. Bec, who also advised us for our ever-popular article, How to talk to your children about death, guided us through everything every parent and carer needs to know about how to help our little ones grieve.
How do children grieve?
Losing a loved one is a profoundly impactful life event for anyone, and there is no correct ‘way’ to mourn the loss. Yet as anyone who has lost someone will know, there is usually a period of intense sadness, followed by healing over time.
When it comes to children, though, their reactions are not always as predictable as this. In fact, they can be anything but. According to Dr. Bec, parents and carers should always remember that the experience of losing a loved one can be very different for children:
“Despite awareness of death, experiencing grief first-hand can be different and confusing for kids. It’s really important to remember that children react differently from adults.”
This reaction can vary vastly from child to child, and will depend on their age and developmental stage. Dr. Bec says that some reactions that parents and carers should expect may include:
“Crying one minute, and playing and laughing the next. Grieving children’s moods and their focus may appear more flippant than adults."
"Changeable moods do not mean that the child isn’t sad or that they have finished grieving, though. Play or another diversion can be a coping strategy to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed.”
Interchangeable moods aren’t the only thing that children experience, though. Many children may also display a raft of other emotions:
“Grieving children may also feel guilty, anxious or angry at the person who has died … or at someone else entirely.”
Younger children may also experience a regression, which can feel concerning for parents, says Dr. Bec:
“Younger children who are grieving may also start wetting the bed again, or slip back into baby talk.”
All of these behaviours can be challenging for parents, especially if they are also grieving at the same time.
What should you say to a child who is grieving?
Grief is different for all of us. Some of us want to talk incessantly about our lost loved one, whereas others want to say nothing at all. Regardless of which camp you fall into, talking to a child who is grieving is always difficult. What can you say? What should you say?
Here’s what Dr. Bec recommends you say a child who is grieving:
1. Tell your child about the passing yourself
Anyone who has had to tell someone that a loved one has passed knows how difficult it is. And it can be even more challenging breaking this news to children, says Dr. Bec. Despite this, it’s important that you are the person to tell them, as hearing the news from anyone else can be even more upsetting.
When breaking the news of a passing to your children, Dr. Bec recommends:
- Using simple, clear words, for example simply saying: ‘I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today.’
- Pause to give your child a moment to take in your words
- Take cues from your child. Invite them to tell you anything they may have heard about death, and how they feel about it
- Given them ample opportunity to ask questions. Be prepared to answer these questions, including details that you may find upsetting.
2. Put emotions into words
When someone passes, it’s important to not just share the news, but to talk about how you (and your child) are feeling about the event. Dr. Bec encourages parents to put their emotions into words in the days, weeks and months following the loss. Doing so helps children be aware of how they might be feeling and to be more comfortable with it.
Dr. Bec says you can do this using a simple statement like the following:
“Say, for example, ‘I know you’re feeling sad. I’m sad, too, as we both loved Grandma very much, and she loved us, too.’ “
3. Be honest and upfront with practical changes
Children thrive in stable and predictable environments, and don’t like it when they don’t know what to expect. For this reason, if a death means that there will be practical changes to a child’s life, Dr. Bec recommends addressing these straight away.
This logistical talk can just be straightforward and simple, for example, telling your child that you’ll need to stay with their granddad for a few days and that their dad will take care of them, or alternatively, that an aunt will now pick them up from school instead of Grandma, etc.
4. Talk about funerals and rituals
When discussing practical matters with your child, it’s important to provide upfront insights into any funerals or rituals that may now occur. Children, as much as possible, should be included in these rituals so they are able to say goodbye.
Dr. Bec recommends that you tell your children about a funeral in a matter-of-fact way. For example:
- Tell them that a lot of people that loved the person will be in attendance
- Discuss the events, for example, the fact that you may sing songs, pray, and talk about the person’s life
- Discuss the emotional side of the event, for example the fact that many people will cry or be upset, but that this is a natural reaction. Also talk about the fact that after the event, there may be a morning tea or a wake where people will be happier, and that this is also normal
- Talk to your children about appropriate ways to express condolences to other people, for example, saying things like ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘My condolences,’ as well as how to thank people for coming
- Take the time to reassure your child that you will be there to hold their hand or provide them support (or if you can’t, someone will be).
In order to reduce the potential stress that a funeral can cause for your children, Dr. Bec recommends giving them a role in the funeral or ritual. Doing so can help them feel more comfortable with the emotional situation. This role can be anything from inviting them to read a poem, to asking them to pick flowers from the garden. Dr. Bec says that you ultimately, though, you should let your child decide how involved they want to be.
How to support your child through grief
Talking to your child throughout the immediate grieving period and rituals that accompany it is one thing, but helping them through their grief is entirely another. As another who has lost someone will know, grief has no solution. It comes and goes in waves, and sometimes it does threaten to overwhelm you.
Nonetheless, there are a few things you can do to help your child (and by association, you), through the grieving process. You can provide them support in the following ways:
1. Model calm
Of all the things you need to do to support your child through their grieving process, this could be the most important one. Children are great imitators of adult behaviour, so it’s likely that your child will grieve in a more calm manner if you try to model this behaviour.
Dr. Bec recommends the following:
“Let your child know that you’re sad, but don’t talk to your child in a highly emotional way. If you do, it’s like he or she will absorb your emotion and very little else.”
“If you remain calm though, it’s more likely your child will grasp what is happening and start modelling your behaviour.”
2. Help your child express their feelings
Losing a loved one is an extremely sad time, so it’s your role as a parent to help your child express these emotions in a healthy way. There are any number of ways they can do this, from drawing, to reading a children’s bedtime story about death and loss.
Children need to feel safe to express their emotions. ‘Safe’ means the ability to experience feelings, and learn to deal with them. Specifically, according to Dr. Bec, a safe grieving environment is one where parents and carers do the following:
“When your child is grieving, your role is to allow - and indeed, encourage - them to express their feelings so you can help them build healthy coping skills for the future.”
3. Listen, comfort and provide reassurance
As with any grieving person, your child needs lots of comfort and reassurance throughout their grieving process. Just like adults react to grief in a myriad of different ways, so too will children. So will cry, some will ask questions, some will get angry, and some will say nothing at all. As a parent or carer, you have to be prepared to provide love, time and attention through all reactions, and reassure your child that they will be supported and cared for, no matter what.
One common concern for children who lose a grandparent is the idea that their mum or dad will be next. To allay this concern, Dr. Bec recommends:
“Tell your child that you’ll likely live for a long time, and that no matter what, they will be cared for.”
Doing so will help reinforce their circle of safety and security.
4. Be developmentally appropriate
One element of a child’s grieving process that isn’t present for adults is the desire to ask questions. Children are naturally curious and may ask questions you feel uncomfortable with, such as ‘how did someone die?’ or ‘what happens when you die?’
It is important to answer these questions honestly, clearly and factually. However, Dr. Bec says that you need to do so in a certain way:
“When talking to your child about death and grief, make sure you’re developmentally appropriate and don’t volunteer too much information.”
“Difficult conversations like this can be challenging, but also know that they’re unlikely to be over in one session. Be available to your child when it matters so they can come to terms with the experience.”
5. Stick to normal routines
Routine is always important to children. Yet it’s even more important when a tragic event such as a passing occurs. This being the case, it’s important to stick to normal routines after the event occurs, says Dr. Bec.
“If you do need time alone after a death, try to find friends or relatives who can keep your child’s life as normal as possible. It’s important for your child to understand that life does go on and that many aspects of life do remain the same.”
6. Give your child time
One of the most important things to remember about your child’s grief is that it doesn’t have an end date. Children, too, need time to feel better.
There are, however, a number of things you can do to help your child move on from their sad feelings. Dr. Bec recommends after you have talked and listened to them, shift to an activity or topic that makes them feel better. Playing, creating art, reading children’s books, cooking, or going somewhere fun together can be a great distraction.
How long should a child grieve for?
Just like there is no end date for a child’s grief, so, too, is there no set amount of time that a child should grieve for. Saying this though, it is possible that your child may develop problems with their grief. If they are experiencing any of the following, says Dr. Bec, you should consider seeking professional help:
- An extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events
- Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone
- Acting much younger for an extended period
- Believing that the deceased person is still alive (for a prolonged period of time)
- Excessively imitating the dead person
- Believing they are talking to or seeing the deceased family member for an extended period of time
- Repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person
- Withdrawal from friends
- Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school
- Guilt. Younger children frequently believe they are the cause of what happens around them. A young child may believe a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister died because he or she had once wished the person dead when they were angry. The child feels guilty or blames him or herself because the wish came true.
If your child is experiencing any of the above, psychological or grief-focused therapy can give them an outlet to talk and work through their feelings.
After a death, it is possible for children to develop what is called adjustment disorder. This is a serious and distressing condition, says Dr. Bec, so professional help is always advised if you are concerned.
How to help your child grieve in the long term
One of the most challenging things that happens to all of us in life is losing people we love. There is no one specific way we all react when this tragic event happens, just like there is no one specific way that we deal with our grief. But one thing is for sure, and that is: it can be a long healing process, but, eventually, we do feel better.
In the days, weeks, months and years following the death of a loved one, Dr. Bec recommends that parents and carers help children grieve in a healthy way. This means that they shouldn’t avoid mentioning the person who died. Instead, they should do the following with our children:
“Help your child remember the person by encouraging them to draw the person, write down their favourite songs, and recall and share happy memories.”
“Doing so helps heal grief and activates positive feelings.”
Ethicool’s gorgeous children’s picture storybook, When Grandma Was the Moon, helps little ones remember a lost loved one in a gentle and poetic way.