Helping Children Deal with Grief


My wonderful father recently passed away and we will all miss him very much. I am especially concerned about how this will impact my three year old son. He is an outgoing little boy who adored his grandfather. What things should I be watching for and what suggestions do you have to make this easier.
Tiburon, California

Dr. Greene's Answer

First of all, I want to express my sincerest sympathy to you and your entire family. It is never easy to lose a parent and it sounds like you were very close to your father. I know you will miss him very much.

The grieving process is a long and difficult one for adults and children alike . The first step in dealing with grief is to recognize the many forms of expression it may take. You may feel depressed, sad, lonely, lethargic, and experience a lack of appetite. These expressions are common and easy to link to grief, but there are many other expressions that are harder to identify as grief-related. They include anger, aggression, ravenous appetite, lack of direction, lack of motivation, inability to focus on a task, short attention span, and forgetfulness. One of the best things you can do to help your son cope with his pain is to give yourself the opportunity to grieve for your father and to allow him to observe your grieving process. It is important to accept now that you will be very fragile for the next year or more. During this time you will need to be very kind to yourself and to your family members.

In terms of helping your son through this process, start by paying careful attention to his physical needs. Make sure that he gets proper rest, nutrition, and exercise. If possible, give him the opportunity to play out of doors. A combination of sunshine and being in physical contact with nature has a strong positive effect on our bodies as well as our emotions. Paying attention to the basics will give your son the opportunity to begin the process of grieving from a healthy position.

There is no really “good” time to grieve, but most likely the pain of this loss will hit at the worst possible time. Whether your child is feeling anger, sadness, depression, or aggression, he will probably express his pain through temper tantrums or bouts of uncontrollable crying. By nature, this will happen when you are in a public place or have pressing obligations that are very important to you . This is not an accident. It is at these times that he will feel the depth of his loss most acutely. In general, you will want to handle these episodes much the way you normally would, however it is important that you recognize what is going on and make extra space for his pain. Your son may not be able to associate what he is feeling with your father’s death and you do not need to bring it up every time he acts out. In point of fact, it is important that you do not allow him to get in the habit of using this as an excuse to act out.

When grieving, some kids will complain of vague physical symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, or “I don’t feel good”. Although it’s important to take these symptoms seriously, it’s also useful to keep in mind that they can be a sign of grieving.

It is also common for children who have recently experienced a loss to worry about their family and friends. In particular, they might worry about another loved one dying or becoming ill. Separation anxiety may become pronounced again, as well as fear of doctor and hospitals.

Another important thing to look out for is guilt, especially in younger children. Sometimes kids feel that a person died because of something they did, said, or wished. It is important to identify this and talk about it should it occur.

You can also expect your son to regress as a direct result of the stress of losing his grandfather. This may include waking up more frequently at night, excessive amounts of thumb-sucking, bed wetting , daytime incontinence, returning to baby talk, and, in severe cases, refusing to talk all together. These things are only temporary and your son will undoubtedly regain the skills and maturity level that he was functioning at before your father’s death if he is able to process his grief in a positive way. An excellent way to help him do this is creative play. This is accomplished by encouraging children to use puppets or action figures to act out what they are feeling. Children have the ability to project their feelings on inanimate objects much more easily than they can own them. It is also less of a risk for them to allow a toy to say what they really feel and watch others react to the toy than it is to risk rejection from the ones they depend on for their sense of self.

After your son has begun to talk about how he is feeling, consider working together to compile a scrapbook of memories about his grandfather. Include lots of photos and memorabilia, but focus on getting your child’s memories into tangible form. Ask him to draw pictures of the things he remembers about his grandfather, then ask him to tell you about the picture. Write down whatever your child says and when he is finished, read it back to him. Give him the opportunity to add to or change what he says until it clearly expresses what he is feeling. In this way you will not only help your child capture memories of his grandfather that will be with him for the rest of his life, but you will help your son clarify his current feelings.

Another idea is to create a family video. Invite family members (and close family friends) to recount their memories of your father and tape them. Allow your son to be as involved in the process as he would like. This might include helping to tell stories about his grandfather, listening while others talk, or just playing in the room while it is going on. In any case, it will help him bring his feelings to the surface. A good time to do this may be at holidays or your father’s birthday. Everyone in the family will be missing your father and they may welcome the opportunity to deal with their own feelings of loss. It is important not to put pressure on anyone to participate because some of the family may not be ready to be this vulnerable. It also does not need to be a great artistic work to be therapeutic. The last thing the family needs is pressure, but each individual does need creative ways to work through this significant life event that leaves each one who experiences it deeply changed forever.

(Note: For those of you with older children, it is great to get them to write their own feelings and ideas)

The scope of “normal” grieving is extremely broad. Everyone copes with loss in different ways, including children. In general, if your child experiences a behavior change following the loss of a loved one that you feel is excessive, and is interfering with his or her normal activities (school, friends, family, extracurricular) for a prolonged period of time, then assistance should be sought. Prolonged periods of imitating the deceased person or the child stating that he wishes he could join the deceased person are red flags as well. Contacting your pediatrician or local hospice might be good places to start for information about counseling and support.

Last medical review on: May 25, 2009
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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