Grief & Children
We’re about 2/3 through the year 2020 and we’ve experienced more losses collectively in the past months than we have in years.
These losses have been the hardest to grieve, when coupled with Covid-19, social distancing, limitations on travel, gatherings, current state of affairs and more.
This week has been a heavy one, with multiple losses in my community, our local Allen ISD school and neighborhood families. I felt an urge to write this blog post today in hopes that it would help the grieving families and children around me.
We are not immune to grief, although we think we are. Our children are also not immune to grief, although we think they are.
As caregivers, we often try to protect our children from the pain, sadness and overwhelm that comes with the understanding of loss. We do this by trying to actively rescue or distract them.
Grief is a normal human response to a loss. Denying, restricting, rescuing or distracting from grief only saves it for a later time, creates mindless anxiety, confusion and resentment.
All children and adults have the right to grieve and mourn, they should be free to feel their sorrow.
Here are some common questions I receive on grief and children.
What do kids need to know?
The fact that someone important to them has died and will no longer be with them.
(This is one of the scariest and hardest things for parents to say to their kids.)
How much do kids need to know?
It depends…..on the following:
- Child’s developmental level
- How much they already know about the incident
- Your values and beliefs as a family about death
This is a complicated question and can have complicated answer depending on many factors.
Who is the best person to tell the child?
The person that is considered to be the next best trusting caregiver-One that the child can rely on, feel supported with, ask questions and trust.
What’s the best way to start this conversation?
First, be prepared with what you plan to say and ready for possible reactions and questions.
Ask yourself, “Am I ready to do this?” If the answer is no, take some time, and find support to feel ready. This is a hard but essential conversation, it may feel like you’re never fully ready. Surround yourself with support and start with trusting yourself.
I always recommend role playing this so you feel more prepared.
-Sit at their eye level.
-Place your hand on them (this helps anchor you and your child)
-Start with something like this, “I’m not sure how to say this but, I have something sad to share with you….”
“Grandma’s heart stopped working today and she has died”
Why is it important for the caregiver/parent to talk to children about the death?
For a few reasons:
- The person that died was important to them and we must honor their right to grieve.
- Children need our honesty so they can trust us with further questions and support as they navigate the loss.
- If you don’t tell them, they will learn facts from other sources-this leads to mistrust of the caregiver.
- They can be be misinformed. Misinformation can lead to fears that impact the child’s narrative about death.
- If we remain vague, children will generate their own narrative about the death and dying.
What can I expect from children while they grieve?
It depends, on their age/development and the circumstances surrounding the loss.
It’s common to see any of the following in children:
-Regression behaviors (thumb sucking, separation anxiety, bedwetting, fear of others dying, etc)
-Sleep and appetite disruptions
-Feel responsible for the loss
-Think death is reversible (children under 7)
(For older kids, you may see learning difficulties, difficulty socializing, academic challenges, inability to concentrate)
What are some ways to help children with grief?
-Validate and normalize their feelings. It’s okay to be upset
-Sit with them in their big feelings, instead of moving away from them or distracting them
-Patiently respond to repeated questions – kids need time and repeated reassurance to process loss
-Maintain routines as much as possible.
-Read books together about death/dying (listed at the end of this post)
-Provide opportunities for them to express their grief when they bring it up. For example: “draw a picture of how you feel right now”
-Don’t use euphemisms when explaining death. Be clear. (Grandma fell asleep and didn’t wake up)
What are some key phrases to say to grieving children?
“You miss (name)….I do too”
“You can’t believe she isn’t with us anymore”
“You wish you could talk to (name) right now”
“You wish she was here with you”
“You remember her so well”
“You love her so much. And she loves you.”
How do you explain death/dying to a child?
Keep it developmentally appropriate, brief and honest.
Here are some examples:
“When someone dies, they stop breathing and their body stops working.”
“When someone dies, the body feels no pain.”
“Someone who has died, does not come back.”
Key points to remember:
Know what to expect
Be prepared to provide extra support
Use developmentally appropriate language
Know that your child may grieve very differently than you or their sibling
Children need our reassurance (repeatedly) that everyone will get through this safely & together.
For continued support, find a Play Therapist in your community for your child and grief therapy for the adult caregiver(s).
One last point I want to make here is that Children are incredibly resilient with consistent support, encouragement, compassion and empathy from their caregivers.
With a loss, kids experience pain, just like we do. But they also overcome it, just like we do.
How to find a Play Therapist for your child or Grief therapist for yourself:
Search in your local community (Psychology Today, www.MAPSDFW.org)
For Play Therapists, check the directory on this website: https://www.a4pt.org/page/TherapistDirectory
At Uplift Counseling Services we specialize in trauma, grief and loss in children and adult women.
Here are some helpful book titles:
- The Invisible String (child 3+) (My favorite)
- The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages (child 4+)
- Always and Forever (child 4+)
- A Terrible Thing Happened (child 4+)
- Ghost Wings (child 5+)
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children (child 5+)
- The Saddest Time (children 6-9)
- Badger’s Parting Gifts (children 4-8)
- A Taste of Blackberries (children 8-12)
- Bridge to Terabithia (children 8-12)