From telling a child about the death of a person close to them, to dealing with their grief reactions, and finally helping them access support, there are so many things to consider while helping children deal with the death of a loved one. Whilst there are several considerations, they may vary depending on your child’s developmental age. You can find age specific advice on various topics in our Grief Resource Hub.
- Remember that every child reacts differently
How children cope with loss depends on various factors, including their developmental age, personality, the support they receive, and the relationship to their lost loved one. Whether a child cries, asks questions or doesn’t react at all, it is important to make sure they are listened to and comforted.
It may be worthwhile to consider the benefits of a bereavement program for your child to normalise their grief reactions, help them grieve in a healthy way, and for them to feel comforted by a community. It is also important to also give your child time to heal from the loss. Grief is a process that happens over time, and each grief journey is different.
- Children might need help to express their feelings
Children can have big feelings when a loved one dies, but they don’t always have the words to express these feelings, often manifesting into feelings of frustration and confusion. It may be a good idea to start by helping them identify how they are feeling and letting them know that their feelings are normal. By labelling some of your own feelings it may make it easier for your child to share theirs.
Children might not always feel like talking about their feelings when a loved one dies, and they may express their feelings through play. For example, drawing, music and puppet play can help children express strong feelings like sadness. Furthermore, Feel the Magic’s bereavement programs offer grieving children the opportunity to learn skills and tools to express their feelings about a death in a healthy way.
- Try to keep to a routine, whilst maintaining expectations.
Maintaining normal routines and boundaries is a way that might help a grieving child feel secure and have a sense of safety. Children find great comfort in routines, and when a child’s world is turned upside down through loss, it is important to provide consistency wherever possible. Try to keep things as familiar as possible, such as school, extracurricular activities, pets and household possessions.
Whilst it is important to try and be consistent with rules and routines, it is important to make sure there is some flexibility in managing expectations. Bereaved children experience significant changes in their lives, so it is important to make sure they feel prepared for these changes. Expectations provide children with a great deal of comfort. It may be helpful to manage your child’s expectations for the memorial/funeral, changes to the family unit and any other adjustments to their daily lives.
- Consider how grief affects children in various domains
- Cognitive Domain – They may have trouble concentrating and/or making decisions. They might experience nightmares, a lack of motivation, or a decline in school performance.
- Emotional Domain – Bereaved children tend to go in and out of the grief process. They might express elevated anxiety about the safety of others.
- Physical Domain – Bereaved children may feel sick more often, experience headaches, stomach aches, tiredness, lack of energy or hyperactivity. There might also be changes in their eating habits and sleeping patterns.
- Spiritual Domain – Grieving children may be curious about death and dying and may ask a lot of questions. They might start to question why this happened and where their loved one is now.
- Social Domain – Children that are grieving may become more dependent or clingy, or they might withdraw. They might also attempt to take on the role of their loved one who has died.
- Behavioural Domain – Bereaved children might show more challenging or demanding behaviours as well as regressions in their behaviours (such as bed wetting).
- Don’t use euphemisms
Children tend to be very literal and the use of euphemisms may leave a child feeling anxious, confused or scared. It may even lead them to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent. It is important to avoid phrases such as “passed away”, “gone away”, “gone to sleep” and “lost”. Check out our blog post for more information on how to teach children about death.
- Help your child remember their lost loved one
In the days, weeks, months and even years ahead, encourage your child to find ways that will help them remember their loved one that died. Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing. This can be as simple as sharing memories of the person who died or bringing up the name of the person who died so your child knows it is not taboo to talk about and remember that person. Children may also want to draw pictures, write down stories, create a memory box, write poems, or create their own memorial.
- There is support available
Giving your child a sense of comfort, reassurance, safety, love and care is extremely important. No matter what grief your child is facing, outside resources and additional support are highly recommended. Whilst you cannot protect your child from the pain of loss, you can help make sure they build healthy coping skills. Consider the benefit of support groups, bereavement programs and counselling to support grieving children.