An old friend of mine just lost her father and, while it was expected, it is devastating. The loss of a close family member is never easy, at any age. I said goodbye to my own father when I was 23, but the loss of my grandmother who was 91 was just as hard. Grief can be all consuming, but it is a part of saying goodbye.
As adults, we sometimes struggle to cope with loss. For children, it can feel nearly impossible. Children, particularly very young children, have difficulty processing the finality of death and will often get stuck in the bargaining phase of the grief process. Children might attempt to will or bargain their loved one back to life in exchange for good behavior, good grades, or helping mom and dad in some way. Their natural tendency toward egocentrism causes many children to wonder if they (or another loved one) will suffer the same fate. For instance, following the loss of a grandparent, many children will worry about the health of their parents.
For adults, grief often comes and goes in waves. It can resolve in months or it might take many years. For children, the waves shift fairly quickly. They are likely to alternate between sadness, anger, frustration, happiness, and even excitement. Children who experience a significant loss are likely to play dead and ask the same questions repeatedly. You can expect regression, anger, aggression, clingy behavior, excessive tears and sadness, temper tantrums, refusal to eat, and sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep). For the most part, these changes are temporary. If any behavioral changes following a loss affect your child’s ability to function (within the family, at school, in the community) call your pediatrician immediately. Play therapy helps many young children work through grief, at any stage of the process.
Below are some for helping children through grief:
1. Explain the loss: Children have difficulty processing lengthy explanations, but they do need facts. They know when parents are lying to protect them. Be honest but brief in your explanations. Focus on the fact that this is something that happened to this particular person right now to avoid excessive anxiety about who will be the next to die. Something as simple as, “Grandpa’s heart stopped working which made his body stop working. When his body stopped working, he could no longer live” works well for preschoolers and early elementary children. Older children will need more specific facts, such as the name of an illness. Remember to stay focused on this one incident and provide frequent reminders that you are ok.
2. Say goodbye: Only you can truly answer whether or not your child can handle attending a funeral but, in general, kids under age 7 might struggle to process the event and to behave appropriately to the situation. However, all children should be given the chance to say goodbye. If you know that death is imminent and the loved one appears peaceful, allow your child a quick goodbye. Explain that the loved one can hear your child saying goodbye. Encourage your child to make a card for the loved one. Hospitals, medical equipment, and a very sickly appearance can be very scary to children. Skip the face-to-face goodbye in these cases and allow your child to attend some portion of the funeral or other services. It’s important to remember that children tend to process things later, not in the moment. Fears and other intense feelings are likely to arise at night.
3. Label and normalize feelings: Children struggle to make sense of intense emotions and often laugh when under stress or experiencing anxiety. Help your child label his feelings and label your own to provide an example. Help your child understand that it’s perfectly ok to feel sad, angry, hurt, overwhelmed, confused, and even lonely. Help them find outlets for those feelings. Coloring and drawing their feelings helps, as do many of the strategies provided in, “When Someone Very Special Dies” by Marge Heegard. This is an excellent resource for teaching children about the grief process.
4. Create a memory book: The finality of death is very difficult for young children to process. In fact, they will sometimes continue to ask to see their loved one for months following a loss. Let your child create a memory book of her time with that loved one. Have her choose pictures and describe her memories for you to transcribe (older children can do the writing). Your child can also draw pictures and add other items from special events. Resist the urge to suggest the important memories. This book is for your child to look over. Her book; her memories.
5. Remember me by: While older children can participate in funeral services and gain closure by saying goodbye, funeral services are often lost on younger children. Consider allowing your child to draw a picture to put in the coffin or near the coffin or urn during the service. Younger children respond well to making a goodbye card (including a picture) to share their feelings. Discuss with other family members prior to offering this suggestion to your child.
6. Provide reassurance: Children tend to be egocentric, meaning that they worry about how life events (small and large) will affect them personally. They worry. Be explicit about the steps you take as a family to remain healthy. Visiting the doctor for check-ups, eating fruits and vegetables, getting regular exercise, and getting adequate sleep are all steps toward good health. Your child will need frequent reminders that you are ok, and that he is too.
7. Phrases to avoid: It’s difficult to know what to say to children when someone special dies. It’s best to rely on facts (“his body stopped working”) and avoid phrases such as, “it was his time to be with God”, “it’s his turn to go to Heaven”, “he was very sick”, or “I don’t know”. Young children scare easily and have difficulty understanding God and Heaven (even if those are your beliefs), so it’s best to stick to the facts: He died so he can’t walk, talk, or breathe anymore, but we have many memories of him and will keep him in our hearts by talking about him and looking at pictures.
8. Take care of you: This probably should have been first on the list. It can feel impossible to take care of your children when you are grieving. Call in help, go to bed early, eat well, and talk to someone who can be there for you. Don’t be a hero; ask for help. The best way to teach your children how to cope with great loss is to implement adaptive coping strategies in your own life.
*Note: People often recommend a book called, When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Brown & Marc Brown as a reference for children coping with grief. While this can be a good resource for older children, I don’t recommend it for anyone under age 8 or any child over 8 who tends to have significant worries. There are many details regarding various potential causes of death that are not appropriate for young children and might cause further worries for older children. It’s best to focus on your specific situation and help your child write his own story about the loss instead.