How to help a child grieve a loss
Always explain death to a child in an age-appropriate manner
Whether you’ve lost a loved one or helped someone else go through it, you probably know that there are generally five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But did you know this grief model only applies to adults? Children grieve in a much different way. Their perception of death and their grieving process change in each developmental stage. That's why it’s important to explain death to a child in an age-appropriate manner. It’s equally as imperative to help a child grieve according to his or her individual needs.
Children 5 and younger
At this age, children’s moods change on a dime. They might turn from screaming in anger to laughing and playing happily in a matter of seconds. They also may regress and act out. These are all ways of expressing grief. But overall, they don’t really understand what has happened.
“At this age, kids don’t understand that death is irreversible,” said Shawn Sidhu, M.D, training director at the Child Psychology Department at the University of New Mexico and volunteer spokesperson for the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
They may think the deceased is sleeping or has gone away on a trip and will return.
“It’s important to talk about details,” Sidhu said. Don’t say “Grandpa passed away,” or “Grandpa has gone to sleep.” These can be scary images.
At this point, you can talk to your kids about your cultural or religious beliefs. You may say something like “Grandpa has gone to heaven.” Or you may want to tell them that grandpa lives on in our hearts and memories. Some cultures believe the deceased becomes a part of all living things.
“Be sure to tell them whatever is appropriate for your belief system,” said Sidhu.
As far as concrete issues, like attending the funeral, you may want to give your child the choice. But even if he or she doesn’t attend, Sidhu recommends that you perform a ceremony at home.
“You can light a candle or put something into a river and watch it float away,” Sidhu said. “Whatever it is, it should be something meaningful to your family.”
Emotionally, kids this age often feel like it’s their fault and they could have stopped it if they just behaved better. They don’t feel safe. It’s important to reassure your child. Tell her it wasn’t her fault, even if she didn’t do what she was told, and that nothing she could have done could have stopped it. Make her feel safe. Tell her you are not going anywhere and you will always take care of her.
You can use play therapy to help her understand, but above all, talk to your child. Ask open-ended questions that allow her to express her feelings. Allow her time to answer your questions.
Children 6 to 12 years old
At this age, your child might distract himself from the grieving process by throwing himself into sports, video games, drama club, or schoolwork.
“This is a tricky time,” Sidhu said. “Their language can approach that of an adult, but their ability to understand is that of a child. It’s important not to use euphemisms. You must say, ‘Grandpa died, and he is not coming back to life.’”
It’s very important at this age to ask your child how he is feeling. He may seem to have gotten over the death long before he actually has. It’s very important to continue the dialogue.
Kids this age express a lot of emotions through art, says Sidhu. Art therapy is a powerful tool.
Children 13 to 18 years old
Teens understand that death is permanent, and they may be more willing and able to talk.
“It’s important to let them grieve,” Sidhu said. “As parents, we want to take suffering away from our kids, but you have to do just the opposite. You have to acknowledge that the loss is awful and that you feel it, too. You have to avoid telling them to get over it or snap out of it.”
You need to realize teens don’t always turn to their parents. They often feel more comfortable opening up to friends. It’s important they have a strong peer group.
Teens need to feel a part of something and build a community. You can help them look for ways to volunteer. They may want to plant a tree or a garden, something that grows in honor of the loved one. They may want to find ways to memorialize the loved one’s good qualities by helping kids or senior citizens.
“We often talk about how to memorialize qualities,” Sidhu said. “You might say, ‘Grandpa was very kind, loving, and helpful. In what ways are you kind, loving, and helpful? When you are kind and helpful do you feel you are doing Grandpa proud?’”
Tips for any age
Sidhu says to remember the following, no matter your child’s age:
- You’re your child’s role model. Show her that you’re sad and grieving too, but you’re working through your process.
- Keep kids in their routine. This gives your child a sense of structure and safety. Don’t take your child out of school for months, for example.
- Each child experiences grief in a different way, and the amount of time it takes to get through a loss varies. The goal of grief is acceptance and acknowledgement of the finality of what happened.
- Your child may need grief support. Seek help if you notice these danger signs:
- Excessive crying
- Inability to function in school
- Trouble sleeping or eating
- Low energy
- Suicidal thoughts
- Hallucinations or nightmares
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- If you notice danger signs, Sidhu says these resources can offer help:
- School therapist
- Community mental health agencies
- Local university’s Department of Psychology and Psychiatry
- Grief support groups
Overall, Sidhu says, be there for your child and read cues.
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