Death is a part of life, and grief comes along with it. Helping a child grieve and understand death can be very difficult.
Psychiatrist Gail Saltz explains, “Children understand that death is bad, and they don’t like separation, but the concept of “forever” is just not present.” Children often have a hard time wrapping their brains around the concept of death and do not always have the coping skills they need to handle it.
If you are helping a child through the grieving process, here are some important tips to remember:
When breaking the news about death, be clear. Do not use terms that a child may take literally, as a child may then become fearful of “going to sleep” if that is what they think happened to their loved one who passed. Do not volunteer too much information or go into details that could cause confusion or fear in the child. However, do be honest and answer their questions the best you can.
Each child grieves differently, just like adults. The child’s moods may fluctuate and be inconsistent. This does not mean the child is grieving inappropriately; it just means they are processing in different ways. Sometimes the child’s action could reflect a defense mechanism they are tapping into as a way of coping. The child may feel many different emotions (such as anger or guilt) toward the person that has died, depending on their understanding of the situation.
Allow your child to express a variety of emotions. It is good practice for everyone to be able to express the emotions they are feeling, especially grieving kids. Help your child understand their emotions and utilize a safe way of expressing these emotions. It may not be easy for your child to express them in an appropriate manner. If that is the case, encourage them to do things like writing, drawing, or role playing a memory of the person they have lost.
Understand your own grief. Aside from helping your child grieve, you will likely be grieving yourself. Your child’s grief will likely reflect your own. It is important to allow your child to see safe emotion expression. Please do not project your grief onto the child. Do not make the child feel as though they need to be the caretaker in the situation or escalate it so it is emotionally harder for them.
Be consistent. Kids crave consistency. They want a routine and a sense of normalcy. This is true in the calm of their lives and also in the chaos.
Practice coping skills. Children can often struggle with self-regulation and managing their emotions. By practicing coping skills with the child, they will likely have an easier time containing extreme emotional outbursts. Coping skills can include a variety of things like listening to music, making a memory collage, journaling, etc.
Preparation. It is important to prepare your child for what to expect from a funeral, burial, or any other death ritual that might take place so it does not come as a shock when they are in the moment. Your child may have questions about life after death, so it is important that your beliefs and others’ beliefs are discussed with them.
While all of these practices are helpful to a child during the time of a loss, it important to monitor that the child is able to cope with grief and recover from loss in a healthy manner. If your child does not seem to be doing so, it is important to talk to a doctor or seek out a therapist.
This column is written by Niki Walls, LSW, school social worker for Youth First, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families. Youth First provides 55 Master’s level social workers to 76 schools in 10 Indiana counties. Over 38,000 youth and families per year have access to Youth First’s school social work and afterschool programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success.