Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and unfortunately children are not immune. While we wish we could inoculate them against pain, the reality is the only way out is through. As a parent, there are many things you can do to help your child cope during difficult times.
1. Listen With Compassion: The most important thing you can do for your child is to acknowledge the loss.
It can be painful to witness deep suffering in your own child, and you may feel the urge to distract them from the pain grief. It may help to remember that you are helping your child through a difficult time, and that intention alone may give you the strength to “stay.”
2. Create Physical Comfort: Grief is one of life’s greatest stressors, and your child’s physical body will experience a myriad of symptoms.
This may include stomach aches, headaches, nausea and sleeplessness, to name a few. Feed your child a balanced diet, try to maintain some form of exercise or movement, and help him or her maintain a reasonable sleep schedule.
3. Speak Clearly and Honesty: While it may seem harsh, being honest now will dispel future confusion and reinforce trust.
A certain amount of parental discretion is advised when sharing specific details of the death, but concrete language such as died, death, homicide and suicide are preferable to euphemisms, which can be confusing. Missing information is usually filled in by the imagination, which for many children is much worse than reality.
4. Understand Your Child’s Developmental Perception of Death: How your child understands the finality of death will depend on his or her developmental age.
Maria Nagy’s classic study on children and grief proposes this segmentation, however more recent literature indicates that some children are more “mature” in their understanding of grief. Use this as a guide, not a hard and fast rule:
- Ages 3 to 5: Death is a physical relocation, and the deceased exists somewhere else.
- Ages 5 to 9: Death is often personified, and can be avoided.
- Ages 9 to 10: Death is universal, inevitable, and irreversible.
5. Encourage Creative Expression of Loss: As with adults, children need to process their loss in their own way.
Some children speak openly about their loss, while others prefer to draw pictures, or act out the narrative while playing with dolls. Support your child’s unique expression by asking them to tell you about their drawing, or asking about the characters in their “play.”
6. Maintain Continuing Bonds: When a loved one dies the relationship does not die with them, it simply changes form.
The loss of their loved one will be revisited throughout their lifetime – on birthdays, anniversaries, and other important occasions, as well as at moments least expected. Once considered taboo, incorporating the memory of the deceased into life after loss is not widely recognized as contributing to a healthy adaptation to grief. Reminisce as a family, and find healthy ways to continue the bond of love.
7. Visit a Grief Camp: Children who lose a parent or other significant loved one may benefit from spending time with other bereaved children.
Staffed by volunteers and bereavement professionals, Grief Camps are often offered once a year through Hospice Organizations and Bereavement Centers, and will give your child a chance to play, relax, and process their loss in a supportive environment.
8. Maintain A Schedule: The loss of a significant family member, particularly a parent, can be very disruptive.
In addition to a temporary shift in schedule due to funeral rituals, some families are forced to move or the surviving parent has to pick up a second job. To whatever extent it is possible, help your child stick to his or her regular schedule. This will help create a sense of stability during a time where everything else is changing.
What steps have you taken to support your bereaved child, and how has it helped them cope with the loss?