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Helping Children to Grieve

By: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 24 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Grieving Children Children An Death

Children who have experienced the loss of a loved one must undergo a grieving process much the same as that of adults. The main difference for children stems from their lack of life experience and inability to fully understand the concepts of death and dying.

Addressing Kids’ Concerns

Children must count on the adults in their lives to help and guide them, and this is especially important during times of crisis. The loss of someone close can cause enormous upset, making many children fearful for their basic safety and security. Kids who are grieving need reassurance from those closest to them that they will continue to be cared for and that their needs will be met. Young children may worry that there will be no one to make their meals or read to them, while older kids can experience anxiety about the possibility of losing additional family members. No matter their specific worries, grieving kids must rely on the adults in their lives to provide them with honest, thoughtful answers.

Offering Unconditional Support

Everyone expresses their emotions in their own ways, and grief in children doesn’t always manifest itself in the same manner that it does in adults. Some kids never shed a single tear after the loss of someone close, but instead behave in ways that are not in line with their usual personality type. For instance, normally calm children may display angry outbursts and dedicated students may suddenly decide that their schoolwork is no longer a priority. All of these changes are perfectly normal, and kids need to know that with the help and support of those around them, they will be able to rebuild their once happy and stable lives. Parents of grieving children must walk a fine line, however, in encouraging their children to express their grief while only allowing a certain level of misbehaviour in the process. Children cannot use their emotional turmoil as an excuse for continued disobedience. Firm, yet gentle guidance is required.

Maintaining Existing Routines

Children are creatures of habit and one of the best ways to help through the grieving process is to make an effort to maintain a schedule as close as possible to what they are accustomed to. The loss of a loved one can turn their worlds upside down, but by providing as much normalcy as possible, kids will heal more readily. School attendance and participation in extracurricular activities should be maintained, if possible, and kids should be encouraged to socialise with friends. Social isolation can increase the likelihood that children will suffer bouts of depression and anxiety, so parents and other carers should do all that they can to keep their kids connected to the people that mean the most to them.

Age-Based Advice

Of course, older children and teens are better able to grasp the concepts of death and dying, but even the very young need to have some understanding of what has happened and how they can cope. Kids of varying ages may be developmentally at the same stage, but in general, the following applies:

  • Through Five Years Old: Very young children are unlikely to understand the finality of death and may ask for their departed loved one repeatedly. Some young kids may worry that they have done something wrong and that is why they can longer see their deceased family member. Of course they must be reassured otherwise. Signs that young children are having trouble adjusting include clinginess, difficulty sleeping, or a return to behaviours more fitting younger children, such as bedwetting or a resistance to toileting in kids who had been fully potty trained.
  • Ages Five through Ten: By this age, kids understand that death is final, but they may still hold onto the view that the loss is somehow connected to their behaviour. Providing reassurance that their actions or attitudes do not have the ability to cause illness and/or death is vital, but some kids continue to worry that they may “make” other family members sick. Adjustment problems in older kids often manifest themselves as behavioural problems or an inability to concentrate on schoolwork.
  • Ages Ten and Up: Pre-teens and teenagers have a solid understanding that death is unavoidable, but the passing of someone close to them can still bring on a sense of despair. If the death was unexpected, they may become fearful that they or someone else close to them may fall victim to a sudden illness or accident. Depression, anxiety, a disregard for rules, or a sudden change in attitude may indicate that the child is having trouble adjusting.

Grieving is a process and healing happens gradually. With love, guidance, and a support system available to provide answers to questions and reassurance that they will be alright, most kids will learn to handle the loss of a loved one.

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