Healthily Grieving a Loss – How to Help Your Child

byMark Gardner, LCSW

Many life events can cause your child to experience feelings of grief and loss: the death of a family member; parent or sibling illness; death of a pet; moving; changing schools midyear; divorce; even losing a favorite toy.

In this newsletter, I’ll illustrate the best principles and practices of healthy grieving by using the example of the death of someone close to your child, like a family member or family pet. Techniques for unexpected grief events will be covered as well as how to proactively address expected grief events to reduce your child’s distress and increase healthy grieving behaviors.

Children grieve differently than adults

First and foremost, your child’s reaction to a grief event will look differently than that of a typical adult. And children of the same age can have great variation in their responses. Sometimes children will have no visible reaction when they find out about a loss; other times you’ll see a strong reaction. Often, we can see their reaction via changes in activity level, moodiness, sleep disturbances, and how much time they want to spend with or how close they want to be with their parents.

Younger children, because of their nonexistent to emerging abstract thinking ability and, on the contrary, concrete and magical thinking styles, can have unusual ideas about what has happened and their role in it. Also, their feeling experiences will vary based on their understanding of what has happened; how much has changed (or not changed) in their world and daily activities; and their abilities to understand and communicate about their feelings. Additionally, children will be strongly influenced by the changes they sense and observe in the people around them. Their world view is centered around their parents, immediate family and the people they see each day.

Common reactions to a loss – what you may observe

Children of all ages may have the following reactions to a loss: intermittent sadness; increased irritability; increased sleep disturbances; decreased appetite; anger; guilt; decreased academic achievement; decreased interest in peers/social interactions; decreased sense of safety/security.

Infants and toddlers, who experience change via their senses, are most affected by immediate changes in caregivers, environment, and routine. They can most directly experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns.

Preschoolers can start acting as if a younger age (regression), be more clingy with caregivers, be more irritable, and have fantastical ideas of what may have happened (for example, if a pet died in an unrelated way after a thunderstorm, she may think the thunderstorm caused it).

Elementary-school-age children, given their evolving intelligence, may be more interested than their younger peers in all the circumstances related the loss (e.g., what happens to a pet’s body after it dies).

It is also common for children of all ages to act out their internal experiences of the loss in their play. This is their way to process, understand, and gain mastery over the experience. Observing and witnessing such play in a supportive manner can help your child grieve effectively. Also, children can ask many questions about a death or loss.

Ways to help your grieving child

Generally, a child approaches an experience with curiosity, an open mind, and a desire to understand what is happening to him and the people around him. Though in many cases we are inclined to shield a child from what we perceive or experience as very intense emotions or situations, a child actually benefits most from having developmentally-appropriate information provided to him and opportunities to participate in customs and rituals designed to help people grieve. Withholding information or participation in activities can create confusion and stress when he perceives people around him as upset, but is told that everything is ok.

The following strategies can guide your approach to a grieving child:

  • In age-based, simple language, provide accurate information about what is occurring;
  • Answer any questions she may have in the same way; if you need to think about an answer, it is ok to tell a child that you’ll think about it and get back to them.
  • Provide your child choices regarding participating in (or creating) grief-related rituals or customs; have back-up providers who can watch your child if he/she does not want to go or only wants to be there part of the time;
  • Reassure the child that whatever feelings he has are ok;
  • Let the child know that the (possibly intense) feelings of their parents, caregivers or other adults around them are how people feel when there is a loss (emotional role models);
  • Reassure the child that everyone will be ok (i.e., that he/she will be safe);
  • Returning to regular routines – childcare, school – can minimize the disruption a loss can bring by experiencing the regularity of known daily activities;
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest;
  • Provide extra one-on-one time with parent(s);
  • After the loss, give your child periodic opportunities to talk about their thoughts and feelings about the loss;
  • Read with and have available children’s books that have themes of grief and loss (see below);
  • Create opportunities for your child to do hands-on activities to process the loss (drawing pictures; making memory books; designing rituals and materials that are part of rituals);
  • Support, rather than discourage, grief-related play themes; and
  • Provide opportunities into the future for children to remember, grieve, celebrate, process the person, pet or thing lost;
  • Very importantly, take good care of your self and your grieving needs so you’ll be better able to support your child.

What to do when a loss is expected

Sometimes, you will have more time to prepare your child for a loss. For example, a family member or pet may be terminally ill. In addition to taking advantage of supportive services available, like hospice, the following strategies – in addition to those above, can be helpful:

  • Preview what may happen using clear and simple language
  • Provide opportunities to see the loved one or pet before their death; prepare your child for a hospital visit by explaining how the person may look and that equipment is helping the person
  • Talk about how he/she wants to say goodbye, what rituals to use; allow him to construct rituals to do at home with family
  • Preview rituals; explain the process and all the words he may hear
  • Utilize children’s literature with loss themes;
  • Answer all your child’s questions about what may happen;
  • Begin making memory books or other ways to commemorate, celebrate, and remember what or who is being lost

What to do if you have concerns about your child’s reaction to a loss

There are some specific circumstances when a child’s grief reaction may be complicated or prolonged:

  • The death of a parent or primary caregiver is a severe loss; since surviving caregivers are also usually debilitated by the loss, a child needs significant additional support and guidance to address the multiplicity of issues he’ll experience;
  • The greater degree or extent to which a child’s immediate family and/or daily life is disrupted; this results in a higher amount of stress and longer period of adjustment (this can be mitigated by proactive intervention if it is an expected loss or change);
  • A child’s pre-existing emotional developmental challenges may interfere with healthy grieving;
  • A parent’s emotional challenges may interfere with their ability to facilitate their child’s grieving;
  • Previous unresolved or complicated losses may make an adjustment to a current loss difficult for both children and parents;
  • Trauma and grief together: the death of a parent, loss of a residence by fire, or experiencing a natural disaster can involve grief and trauma reactions. Healing from trauma requires different interventions than grief.

If your child is experiencing any of the above circumstances, or you are concerned that your child is struggling with his or her grief, consultation with a therapist who specializes in trauma, grief and loss can help address your child’s specific reactions.

Additional resources

Books:

The Grieving Child
A parent’s guide
By Helen Fitzgerald
Simon & Schuster

When Dinosaurs Die
A guide to understanding
By Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
Little Brown

Brave Bart
A story for traumatized and grieving children
By Caroline H. Sheppard, ACSW
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

Goodbye Forever
Bereavement activity book (K-2)
By Jim and Joan Boulden
Boulden Publishing

How I Feel
A coloring book for grieving children
By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Batesville Management Services

Organizations:

The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
www.starrtraining.org/tlc

The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families
www.dougy.org

National Child Traumatic Stress Network
www.NCTSNet.org

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