Helping a Grieving Child
Ways to help a child deal with grief after a loved one dies:
- Allow expression of all feelings.
- Understand the child’s losses and factors that inhibit grieving.
- Recognize that lectures are not helpful.
- Adult/caregiver should meet the child’s needs for affection and security; assure him that he is loved.
- Set boundaries.
- Be patient in your helping and be accepting of differences in grieving.
- Try not to attempt to “fix” everything.
- Allow attendance and if possible, participation in rituals of death.
- Allow children to engage in play. Encourage them to draw and to tell stories. Read stories to young children that deal with death and loss.
- Work with the child’s teacher and school counselors to help the child in the school environment with their schoolwork and peer situations relating to the death.
- Adults and caregivers need to grieve in front of children. Explain also tears, fatigue, irritability, etc.
- Allow opportunities for remembering, memorializing.
- Praise children for their courage to grieve and promote a sense of hope.
- Seek help from outside sources-support groups, community resources (church or synagogue), caring friends, family, and counseling, if warranted.
Understanding Children Who Grieve
With the death of a loved one, children experience the following losses:
- Loss of the physical presence of the deceased
- Children struggle to adjust to a life without the physical presence of the deceased in their lives.
- Loss of self
- Identity: the child has to rethink his/her role as a child or sibling in the family.
- Self confidence: children often feel shame, embarrassment as being different from other children and may have a lessened sense of self esteem.
- Health: many children experience the physical symptoms of mourning.
- Tiredness, lack of energy.
- Difficulty in sleeping, or prolonged sleeping.
- Lack of appetite, or excessive appetite.
- Tightness in throat.
- Shortness of breath.
- General nervousness.
- Stomach pain.
- Loss of muscular strength.
- Skin rashes.
- Personality: the child “just doesn’t feel like his/her old self”.
- Loss of safety and security
- Emotional security: children experience an emotional upheaval.
- Physical security: children may worry who will take care of their physical needs.
- Fiscal security: children worry about the family’s finances.
- Lifestyle: the family may not feel the same with the absence of the loved one — for example the person who died may have been more fun loving, affectionate, or boisterous and now the family life is now quieter/different.
- Loss of meaning
- Goals and dreams: the dreams for the future can be shattered and goals can seem to be unreachable without the support or presence of the person who died.
- Faith: children often question their faith following a death.
- Will/desire to live: children may search for meaning in living — “Why go on?”
- Joy: many children lose the sense of joy in their lives — happiness seems elusive.
Children teach us more about their grief through their behavior than their words.
Factors that inhibit childhood mourning:
- Parent/guardian in child’s life is unable or unwilling to mourn.
- Conflicted relationship with the deceased.
- Child’s desire to protect the adult(s) in his life.
- Family rules related to expressing grief … i.e. not talking about the deceased, or death in general, or about feelings.
- Lack of feelings is reinforced.
- Lack of understanding about the nature of death- for example, referring to the deceased as being “gone” or “sleeping” leaving the child not understanding that death is the cessation of life and that it is not temporary.
- No participation in the rituals of death (funeral, visitations, memorial services, burial).
- Bereavement overload.
- Forced (by self or others) of “hypermaturity”.
- Intentional “busyness” to inhibit time to grieve.
- People in child’s life who minimize the child’s right to mourn, — “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “don’t cry”.