Even very young children feel the pain of bereavement, but they learn how to express their grief by watching the adults around them. After a loss, children need support, stability and honesty. They may also need extra reassurance that they will be cared for and kept safe. As an adult, you can help children through the grieving process by demonstrating that it’s okay to be sad and helping them make sense of the loss.
Always answer any questions the child may have as truthfully as you can. Use very simple, honest and concrete terms when explaining death to a child. Children, especially young children, may blame themselves for what happened, and the truth helps them see they are not at fault.
Open communication will smooth the way for a child to express distressing feelings. Because children often express themselves through stories, games and artwork encourage this self-expression and look for clues in those activities about how they are coping.
Talking to children about death must be geared to their developmental level, respectful of their cultural norms and sensitive to their capacity to understand the situation. Children will be aware of the reactions of significant adults as they interpret and react to information about death and tragedy. In fact, for primary grade children, adult reactions will play an especially important role in shaping their perceptions of the situation. The range of reactions that children display in response to the death of loved ones may include:
Emotional Shock and at times an apparent lack of feelings:
These reactions serve to help the child detach from the pain of the moment.
Regressive (immature) Behaviors:
Examples might include needing to be rocked or held, difficulty separating from parents or other significant loved ones, needing to sleep in parent’s bed or an apparent difficulty completing tasks well within the child’s ability level.
Explosive Emotions and Acting Out Behavior:
These behaviors reflect the child’s internal feelings of anger, terror, frustration and helplessness. Acting out may reflect insecurity and a way to seek control over a situation for which they have little or no control.
Asking the Same Questions Repeatedly:
The child will question repeatedly not because they do not understand the facts, but rather because the information is so hard to believe or accept. Repeated questions can help listeners determine if the child is responding to misinformation or the real trauma of the event.
What Not to Do
Grieving is an immensely difficult experience. A grieving parent must not only approach and overcome his or her grief work; he or she may also need to help their children do the same thing. Unfortunately, overcoming our grief is so challenging and confusing that many parents have no idea how to help their children. When experiencing grief, a person’s patience and judgments may be compromised. Some are short tempered, neglectful or even abusive. Because of the tendencies associated with grief, I have plainly listed “The Don’ts” for grieving parents who have grieving children.
Don’t force a child to mourn publicly if he or she does not want to.
Don’t give false or confusing messages like “Grandma is sleeping now.”
Don’t tell a child to stop crying because others might get upset.
Don’t try to shield a child from the loss. Children notice much more than adults realize. Including them in the grieving process will help them adapt and heal.
Don’t stifle your tears. By crying in front of your child, you send the message that it’s okay for him or her to express feelings too.
Don’t turn your child into your personal confidante. Rely on another adult or a support group instead.
GRIEF BRIEF 149
In helping children through their grief experience, remember the “Four B’s”:
(Tracy Renee Lee, Mourning Light, 2015)
How to Help
Allow your child, however young, to attend the funeral if he or she wants to.
Convey your spiritual values about life and death, or pray with your child.
Meet regularly as a family to find out how everyone is coping.
Help children find ways to symbolize and memorialize the deceased person.
Keep your child’s daily routine as normal as possible.
Pay attention to the way a child plays; this can be one of a child’s primary ways of communicating.
My name is Tracy Renee Lee. I am the owner and Managing Funeral Director at Queen City Funeral Home in Queen City Texas. I am an author, syndicated columnist, and co-founder of Heaven Sent, Corp. I write books and weekly bereavement articles related to understanding and coping with grief. I am the American Funeral Director of the Year Runner-Up and recipient of the BBB’s Integrity Award. I deliver powerful messages and motivate audiences toward positive recovery. It is my life's work to comfort the bereaved and help them live on.
For additional encouragement, read other articles or watch video “Grief Briefs,” please go to my website at www.MourningCoffee.com.