Coping with the death of a loved one is difficult for anyone. But for children, this loss can be even more devastating.
For many children, death is a new experience. Imagine the first time you fell off your bike and scraped your knee, the first time you were stung by a bee, or even the first time you rode a roller coaster. While the latter probably ended up being an enjoyable experience, the feelings of fear, confusion, and uncertainty most likely accompanied these “firsts.” Death is no different, and in fact, these feelings are often amplified. Most children don’t know what to expect following the loss of a family member or friend. And depending on their age, a wide range of feelings could accompany such a loss.
This post shares the responses you can expect from children grieving the loss of a loved one as well as tips for helping a child grieve and learn to heal.
A Wide Variety of Responses
These are ways that children may respond to death:
- Denial, shock, and confusion
- Anger and irritability
- Inability to sleep or nightmares
- Loss of appetite
- Fear of being alone
- Physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
- Loss of concentration
- Guilt over failure to prevent the loss
- Depression or a loss of interest in daily activities and events
- Reverting to outgrown behaviors (e.g., bed-wetting, “baby talk” or thumb-sucking)
- Withdrawal from friends
- Excessively imitating or asking questions about the deceased or making repeated statements of wanting to join the deceased
- Inventing games about dying
According to the NMHA, these responses are completely normal and in time, most children will return to their previous behaviors.
Helping a Child Cope with Grief
Helping a child cope with loss and grief is one of the hardest things an adult will have to do. It is made even more difficult when you are experiencing your own pain and suffering, or if you were emotionally unprepared for the loss. While each child will react differently, there are a few ways to help children cope with grief following the loss of a loved one.
Be honest and upfront with kids about what has happened to the deceased. This is often difficult for adults to follow as they hope to guard their children from the thought of death and the deeper more intimate details of dying. This is not to say you must share graphic details of the death, but it is important the child grasps the finality of the situation and that their loved one will not be coming back.
Additionally, according to Kidshealth.org:
“Avoid using euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved one “went away” or “went to sleep” or even that your family “lost” the person. Because young kids think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.”
Children, especially young children, have very literal worldviews and may misinterpret metaphors or euphemisms you use to describe death. While older children have an easier time grasping the concept of finality, it is still important to be as honest and direct with them as possible.
Consider Their Age
A child’s capacity to understand death, in addition to your approach discussing it, will vary according to the child’s age. While personality and upbringing will have a hand in a child’s ability to comprehend and grieve a loved one’s death, here are some rough guidelines to keep in mind:
As mentioned above, young children under five or six have a very literal view of the world. So, explain things in very basic and concrete terms. For example, if a grandparent passes away, you might say their body wasn’t working anymore and doctors couldn’t fix it. If, however, a person dies suddenly from an accident or other tragedy you could explain that because of this very sad event, the person’s body stopped working. For children this age, you may have to explain that “dying” or “dead” means that the body stopped working.
From about 6-10, children start grasping the finality of death, even if they don’t fully understand that it will happen to every living thing some day. In this age, children begin personifying death as a ghost, skeleton, or the “boogeyman”. They may also think that if they make a wish or pray, their loved one won’t die. Try to remain clear, honest, and factual when talking about death to a child at this age. Make it clear that eventually, everything dies (even Whiskers, Fluffy, and pet Fishy).
As kids enter their teens, their understanding of death evolves. They may question mortality and vulnerability more than their younger siblings. KidsHealth recommends empathizing with teens and encouraging the expression of grief:
“If your 16-year-old’s friend dies in a car accident, your teen might be reluctant to get behind the wheel or even ride in a car for awhile. The best way to respond is to empathize about how frightening and sad this accident was. It’s also a good time to remind your teen about ways to stay safe and healthy, like never getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking and always wearing a seatbelt. Teens also tend to experience some guilt, particularly if one of their peers died. Whatever your teen is experiencing, the best thing you can do is to encourage the expression and sharing of grief.”
Encouraging your child to ask questions will help create an atmosphere of comfort and openness. Furthermore, it’ll help send the message that there is no right or wrong way to feel. A common fear from adults is not knowing all the answers. Let go of this anxiety. Don’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure myself about that” or “I just don’t know the answer to that”. Children respond to this honesty and it will help them feel better about not knowing everything either. Share with children your beliefs and expose them to the beliefs of others. For example, some people believe in the afterlife while others do not. Allow them to be comforted in knowing your beliefs and encourage them to choose their own.
Grieve with Them
Too often, adults bottle up emotions and reactions to death either out of fear that they will appear vulnerable or in hopes that saying nothing will help the pain go away. Let yourself cry and admit that you feel sad. Children are sensitive to emotion and learn how to react to situations appropriately by watching the behaviors of others. They know that something is wrong, but seeing that you are not talking about the death may lead them to think, “If Mom and Dad are so upset that they can’t talk about it, I shouldn’t either.”
Open up by saying things like, “I’m very sad, because Uncle John died, and I loved him a lot. Now I won’t see him anymore.” This gives your child permission to express his or her own feelings.
Offer Love and Reassurance
Show your love and reassure your child you’re there for them during this difficult time. As previously mentioned, death is often a new experience for children, and what follows is uncharted territory. News of the death may make your child very afraid of losing you. Reassure them that you are there, and respond with soothing gestures: Give them a hug, hold their hand, stroke their hair, or even sing them a song. Remind your child that most people who are hurt or sick get better and live until they are very old.
Your child may be unsure that what he or she is feeling is normal or “okay.” Let them know that whatever they are feeling is completely normal. You might say, “I know you’re going to miss Mr. Jones a lot because he was a wonderful teacher and made you laugh.” This tells them that it’s okay to feel different emotions, both happy and sad when they think about the deceased.
Help them Memorialize the Deceased
Assist your child in finding special ways to remember their loved one who has passed. You might offer to help them plant a tree, dedicate a special place in memory of the deceased, give them framed photos of their loved one, release balloons at home or at the cemetery, create a memory box of cherished items, bake a cake on the deceased’s birthday, and more.
The important thing is to help them do something meaningful that they will remember and assist them in expressing their feelings in a way they may not otherwise be able to in words.
Seek Outside Help if Necessary
Some children may require outside help to cope with their grief. Seek help from a school counselor, child therapist, family members, or clergy if you feel your child needs additional help dealing with the loss. Be alert for signs of depression or suicidal behavior. Seek professional help immediately from a mental health professional or health care provider if you notice any unusual behavior.
If you have additional questions on typical reactions children will have to death as well as how to help a child in your life cope with loss and grief, check out these resources:
What other tips do you have for helping a child cope with grief and loss? Share them with us in the comments!