Kids and Grief

Kids grieve as painfully as adults, but they may not express it in the same way. The age of a child at the time of loss determines to a large extent how the child will be affected by death, but there are certain concepts that apply no matter what age.

Honesty is a key factor in approaching the subject of death with a child. Rather than sheltering a child from reality, it should be filtered to his or her degree of understanding. A child should be told of the death of a loved one simply and gently in a language he or she can understand. Telling children what they will later have to unlearn is not to their benefit. Euphemisms – such as a person “went away,” or “is asleep” – serve only to confuse or even frighten them. Questions should be accepted and answered honestly. Kids will look to adults for models to follow in grieving. Being honest with one’s own grief when talking with children is a gift to them. It gives them permission to grieve also.

Emotion is natural. Grief is a normal reaction to loss necessary for health. There must be a way to express it. A child who has experienced a tragedy, and becomes silent and passive, is NOT “taking it well.” This is a time for tears. Better to say to a child, “I could cry too,” rather than “You mustn’t cry.” Expressions of the feelings of grief – such as fear, anger, guilt and loneliness – should not be discouraged. They can be a healthy outlet. But neither is it appropriate to urge a child to express unfelt feelings. Kids, like adults, react differently to sorrow and their individuality should be respected.

Adults need to be aware that grief in children is often complicated by unspoken fears . Elizabeth Kubler-Ross writes that: “Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion to death,” and children often suffer deep guilt when a loved one dies. They believe in the power of magic, that wishes come true and bad deeds are punished. They may need to be reassured that nothing they did, said or wished caused the loved one to die. The death of a loved one is NOT retribution for their wrong-doing.

A basic need for kids is security. This is particularly true during grief. Children need to go through their daily routines to assure themselves that things will go on. Their wish to resume play activities should not be interpreted as a lack of feeling. They are part of the child’s routine and the vehicle through which growth is achieved and feelings worked through.

Assurance of continuing relationships with other family members and friends also adds to a child’s sense of security. Kids and adults can work through grief together. This affirms the existing relationships. If the child knows the adults in his or her life have similar feelings of loss, are willing to share them as well as listen and can acknowledge that it’s hard for them too – communication lines can remain open. The child will feel included and safe in the relationship. And, let’s not overlook the obvious – a hug is the easiest non-verbal way of conveying a sense of acceptance and security.

No matter how tragic a loss may seem, in the words of author Eda LeShan in Learning to Say Goodbye, “A child can live through anything so long as he or she is told the truth and is allowed to share with loved ones the natural feelings people have when they are suffering.”

So What Can You Do?

While the grief process kids go through is affected by their age or stage of development, there are similarities between a child’s grief and the adult’s mourning process.

The following suggestions may be helpful in supporting a kid’s grief process:

  • Set aside time to talk with your child – explain the events that are occurring, why you are crying, etc.
  • Use basic words like “die” and “dead” to convey the message.
  • Use the deceased person’s name when referring to him/her.
  • Avoid the phrases that “soften the blow”. Phrases such as “sleeping,” “went on a vacation,” “God took them,” or “God needed them more than we did.” They only scare and confuse a child.
  • You need to have an understanding of your own grieving process – since these things are communicated to the child.
  • Read , or have your child read, kid’s books related to death and discuss them with your child.
  • Read books yourself on helping a child through grief.
  • Be sensitive to the age of your child, and his/her level of understanding – don’t offer information beyond the child’s comprehension – it will only confuse things.
  • Let your child ask questions , answer truthfully! Be honest, simple and direct. If you don’t understand something, let your child know that too.
  • Play with your child (eg dolls, drawing, imaging) in ways that will allow the child to express his/her feelings.
  • Watch for TV programs that might help your child’s understanding.
  • Share your feelings with the child if he/she is able to understand them.
  • Allow your child to participate if he/she wants to – like going to the funeral, visiting the cemetery. However, it is crucial that you don’t pressure your child into doing any of these things.
  • Accept help from others to watch your children and talk with them – but, remember, you are the most important person to your child!
  • You are a role model for your children – if you hide your grief, they will learn to hide it too.
  • Let your child vent his/her emotions and acknowledge them – crying, hugging, letter writing, shredding old phone books.
  • Watch for signs that your child is having adjustment issues – eating and/or sleep disorders over a long period of time, bed-wetting, irritability, etc
  • Seek counselling if you have concerns – remember, you know your child best.
  • Remember, kids have the same feelings we do, but a different level of understanding.
  • Talk to your child about how you appreciated having the deceased person in your life.
  • Help your child to recover and retain memories of the loved one. Photo albums, videos and newspaper clippings will get you started.
  • Plan some activities you and your child can look forward to.
  • Don’t talk to kids as if you have all the answers which they must accept. If kids are to find their own answers, they need to struggle with the problem themselves.
  • Talk to hospice about the kids grief group, Stormy Nights…Sunny Days.
  • Visit our Resource Centre or talk to us about books available for you and your child.
  • Give Kids Time!!