Helping Children Deal With Grief

By: Mary B. Hammock, MSN, CPNP

Helping Children Deal With Grief

There is evidence all around us that children are not little adults. That is certainly noted in the grieving process. Most young children don’t understand, nor can explain death, but most young children are aware of it. Death and loss are all around them – cartoons, video games, and movies. Some are also aware of the death of a pet or the loss of a loved one. Death is often a confusing process for children but giving guidance through the process can equip children with the coping skills needed for healing.

We All Grieve Differently

Everyone grieves differently, especially children. Children express over 100 acknowledged symptoms of grief. Quick-changing moods are common in children and playing often helps children cope. Symptoms tend to come and go for children. A child that cries and then runs off to play doesn’t indicate the child is no longer sad. That can simply be a defense mechanism to prevent from feeling overwhelmed –overwhelmed by loss, lack of routine, fatigue, the number of people visiting or new people present in the home. Crying, lethargy, sadness, bargaining, anxiety, anger, numbness and denial are common symptoms of grief, as well as learning and attention issues, decreased performance in school or activities, behavioral problems including irritability, arguing, and fighting, and disengaging from friends and family.

Asking Questions

Children learn by asking questions. When a child asks questions about death, even the hard ones, it is important to provide sensitive, age appropriate answers. Avoid telling them un-truths to buffer them from the loss. Think about the age group you are talking with. Telling a preschooler that “Papa passed” or overhearing a mom tell someone “I lost my husband” may lead the child to believe the person will return or simply needs to be found. When a child questions what happened, use concrete words such as “died” instead of vague terms like “passed away.”

Stages of Grieving

Children grieve in stages as they grow and brain development occurs. Comprehension increases as thinking becomes more abstract. Younger brains tend to be more protective and may produce mild symptoms. Times of stress and hormone development can make children vulnerable to reviving grief and may lead to major symptoms.

Encouraging children to express whatever they are feeling is important. Sometimes, it easier for a child to express him or herself through drawings or through play. It is important to simply talk with children about the person who died. Share what you remember about the person and encourage the child to share memories as well. Talking about the person who died will give the child permission to share feelings and it will tell the child that you are hurting as well and you can provide comfort to each other. Listening without judgment is extremely important. Don’t try to fix or evaluate a child’s feelings and avoid phrases such as “it will get better,” or “I know how you feel.” This can quickly negate the child’s feelings. Validating their experiences and emotions through open-ended questions and reflections will help a child to regain a sense of safety, balance and control.

In Conclusion

Prepare a memory box with and/or for your child. Put photos, special items and keepsakes in the box and place it in a special place for your child. Write down your own memories and help to record the child’s memories for them to review later. Be available to go through it with the child as often as they like.

It is equally important that parents don’t ignore their own grief. It is imperative to discuss your own grief and emotions with your friends, family, and support groups as needed. Parents never intend to forget a child’s grief but it can easily happen, especially if they are grieving for a child or over an unexpected loss. School teachers, church leaders, friends, and extended family can all play a role in supporting and encouraging a child through the difficult times so don’t forget to ask for help.
The important thing is to recognize that no matter how or when it happens, grief will eventually hit and a child will need to experience it to heal. Be available to love, listen and role model for your child. Healthy Steps Pediatrics is helping to GROW healthy children one step at a time. If you feel your child is suffering through the grieving process, call 678-384-3480 for a consultation today.