Helping Children  Cope with Grief

By Dr Bill Webster

  • It is important to note that children have many questions about death, and these are usually different than the ones that occur to adults. Children’s questions deserve simple, straight forward answers. The first task of a grieving child is to make sense of the factual information about how the loss occurred. A caregiver’s direct, concrete explanation of the facts surrounding the death will help the children begin to come to terms with what has happened. They may ask to hear the facts a number of times. They may also want to share the story with many others … friends, teachers, strangers … to try to comprehend the unimaginable that has happened.
  • Children’s perception of loss and their grief has to be understood according to their developmental levels. Death, or indeed any loss, means different things to children of different ages. Ask and try to figure out what this loss means to this child at this particular time in life. What they feel they have lost will be a determinate of what they are missing, and what needs to be.
  • Dispel any fears the child may have. Children are often afraid that someone else in the family, or they themselves will die also. They need to have reassurance that these fears are unfounded. Every child is afraid of being abandoned, so if one parent has died, the remaining parent can assure the child that he/she expects to live a long time, and will take care of all the child’s needs.
  • Children need to teach adults about their grief. Every child and every response is unique. Rather than assuming that we know what the child is feeling, we must allow the children to be our teachers. As children share their grief with others they trust, they tell us what they are feeling and experiencing. As adults communicate respect, acceptance, warmth and understanding, the child will sense that they are being taken seriously and be more open to the stabilizing presence of that individual as they reach out with meaningful support.
  • Children express themselves in a variety of ways after a loss. Some of the most widely recognized include: an apparent lack of feelings; acting out behavior, due to feelings of insecurity and abandonment and often expressed by behaviors which provoke punishment, for children would rather be punished than feel ignored; regressive behavior; fear; guilt and self-blame; “Big Man” or “Big Woman” syndrome, (often encouraged by those who with good yet unwise intentions tell a 10 year old that he has to be the “man of the family”); disorganization and panic; loss and loneliness; explosive emotions.
  • Simple ceremonies such as lighting a candle next to a photograph; placing a letter, picture or special memento in a casket; or releasing a helium balloon with a message attached for the person who died, can be effective rituals of farewell. Children can be wonderfully creative with these kinds of meaningful, symbolic ideas.
  • Speak in simple language: Ask the child what he/she thinks, knows and feels, and respond specifically to these concerns. Do not give excessive detail, and make sure you check how the child is putting the information all together.
  • Be honest. Avoid half truths. Never tell a child something he/she will later have to unlearn. Don’t avoid the word death, because sometimes the alternatives (asleep, gone away, in a better place, etc.) create worse difficulty in a child’s mind.
  • Be open about the situation: When my wife died, my boys were 9 and 7 years of age. As much as I might have wanted to, there was no avoiding the questions that arose. “Why did Mommy die?” “Where is she now?” “What will we do if you die too?” I tried to answer the questions they asked simply and honestly, without giving too complicated responses. They discerned that I was making them a part of it all, and was being open about everything and accepted that.
  • Initiate the conversation: Children may not ask questions because they are not sure if they will upset we adults. They may not know what to ask, or be able to put their uncertainties into words. They know that something unusual is happening, and are scared by it. Instead of asking questions, they may turn to whining or other negative behaviors, which add to your emotional stress. In response, rather than helping them cope, adults may get upset or angry and this adds to the reluctance to talk. Try to be sensitive to opportunities to ask children how they feel. We might ask, “You’ve probably been wondering about …. ”, and pose the question that the children may be asking.
  • Sometimes our concern for the children can mask a deep need to resolve our own adult grief issues. Sometimes it is easier and more socially acceptable to say, “I am concerned about the children,” than it is to say, “I’m having a hard time dealing with this myself.” So be careful not to transfer your own fears and anxieties on to the children.
  • Often a child may benefit from a support program. Talk to your doctor, spiritual leader or other community resource people to see what programs are available for your children.
  • Above all, let the child know that these feelings of grief are natural and a necessary part of the grieving process and that their grief will pass. Assure them they are not alone, and that others, including you yourself, feel sad as well. Assure the child, however, that these feelings will pass with time, and that life will return to normal.

A few practical guidelines:

  • When describing the death of a loved one, use simple direct language.
  • Be honest. Never teach a child something they will later have to unlearn.
  • Allow children to express all their emotions
  • Listen to children, don’t just talk to them
  • Don’t expect the child to react immediately. Be patient and available
  • Understand your own adult feelings about death and grief, for until we have come to terms with it for ourselves, it will be difficult to convey a positive attitude to children.

An important influence on children is watching how adults are responding. Caring adults can help guide children through this difficult time and make it a valuable part of personal growth and development. When you support children through these difficult life transitions, they will know without a doubt they are not alone. There is no greater gift we can give our children.