Helping a Child Grieve

I’m not sure there is anything that pulls at the heartstrings more than watching a child’s grief, especially when it’s your own child. Understanding how children grieve a loss is difficult, and knowing how to help them is even harder.

When my 3 year-old daughter lost her dad in a tragic accident, I struggled with understanding what to do and how to help her. Tony was a GREAT dad! He had two children--a son, Paul, from his first marriage and Sarah, our daughter. He loved his kids tremendously and played a very active role.

Tony worked swing-shift, and I worked straight days. Two out of three weeks, he took care of the kids while I worked. Every third week, when we worked the same shift, our daughter went to daycare. On one of those day shifts, when Sarah was not quite 3-1/2 years old, Tony dropped Sarah off at daycare with the promise he would pick her up later. She never saw him alive again.

Child-Like Grieving

The first year was the worst. First, how does one explain to a 3 year-old that her dad is dead? She had no concept of death--the closest Sarah had come was losing a goldfish or two! It's best to address it directly, to be honest but speak in age-appropriate terms. A toddler doesn't need philosophy, but you can be clear a loved one is gone, and acknowledge it hurts. Being honest about your broken heart lets them be honest about theirs.

Second, there are symptoms of grieving. One for Sarah was called “age regression,” which means she reverted to behavior of an earlier age, in some ways to about 18 months old. At Sarah’s age, she was unable to talk about, or even understand, her grief. Her pain also came out in hitting--especially hitting me--a lot. And of course she would sob, and my heart would break. She began to ask questions about Dad and to offer prayers asking God to tell him “hello” for her. Some behaviors may need redirecting, and talking about feelings or questions may need to be encouraged.

As she aged, questions about her Dad became fewer and more scattered, but showed continued processing. When Sarah was 5, she asked me if her Dad had wanted to die. Her question startled me and I assured her absolutely not! It was an accident! She paused, thinking, and then said, “Well, then what if you die? You wouldn’t have a choice either.” Ouch!

Recognize the Grief Process

Just like adults, children’s grieving will vary depending on external factors, such as the relationship, how it happened, and how it affects daily life (e.g., do we have to move?), and relationships to others and environment. Grieving will also depend on internal factors, such as the emotional and cognitive developmental levels, personality, and beliefs.

In general, children grieve in a way that resembles a roller-coaster. Thoughts and feelings are can be intense and periodic. God gave them this wonderful gift, however, that a “shut-down” can automatically occur when they become overwhelmed. Sobbing one minute--playing the next. As children age, the highs/lows become less abrupt and less intense in changes.

Ways to Help Walk through Grief:

  • Don't ignore the loss, but fit the level of what you say to the children’s abilities to understand.
  • Try not to give more information than they need. Telling children “I don’t know” to their questions can be very appropriate (when true).
  • When their behavior signals grief is near the surface, ask them to talk about it, what they think, what they feel, what they wonder. Be a safe place that invites processing of hard emotions.
  • Remember that life as they knew it is gone, and along with it, the feeling of being safe and secure from loss. Despite our own grief, we have to focus on helping our children feel as secure as possible.
  • Remember age regression is fairly normal. Please be patient and just love them where they are at.
  • Ask them to talk or draw about their experience. Ask them to draw (and then discuss) three pictures: what life was like before, what life was like after, and what life will be like someday. This gives voice to the loss, but ends on a hopeful tomorrow.
  • Practice loving your child in the way the child understands love. I highly recommend reading “The 5 Love Languages of Children” by Dr. Gary Chapman (there is also one specifically for teens), which will help you figure out how to reach each child in a way he/she will understand.
  • Be sure to have some wise counsel available. According to Proverbs there is wisdom in many counselors. Watching my daughter heal through counseling is one of the reasons why I myself have chosen a career in professional Christian counseling.
  • Help your child to remember the lost loved one in a way that is appropriate. This may mean putting together a photo album or a scrapbook of memories. Honoring the lost in specific ways also helps the moving on of life in other areas.
  • Remember grieving doesn't just stop. As they age, they will have to come to terms with new facets of loss. Not only is a loved one gone, but the ideal future with that loved one can now never happen. My daughter is now engaged and just started thinking about her wedding day--her daddy can never walk her down the aisle or dance with her.

Lean on Your Faith

Above all else, pray! Pray for guidance! This is the best way to help children through grief. God knows what your child will understand best, the best ways to comfort, what decisions can be made when, etc. In James 1:5, we are told to ask for wisdom when we lack it, and God will give it to us GENEROUSLY. God won’t be mad at us for asking or for not knowing.

Parents usually question if they are handling situations and emotions in the right way. Don't hesitate to seek out godly counsel from a pastor or counselor to support you. Parents are human and mess up to one degree or another. Please remember this: In God’s love, He made a way so that we could be in relationship with Him despite our sins.

As much as we love our children, God loves them even more. Do your best (which means getting God’s guidance), and then trust God with the rest knowing that he loves our children best. “If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask Him?” (Matthew 7:11, NLT).

Together with our children, we can look forward to the day when “he heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).

About the author — Debi Mitchell, MS, LMFT

Debi Mitchell is an Indiana Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Chicago Christian Counseling Center. Debi has extensive experience working with adolescent behavioral and emotional issues, family counseling, grief/loss, trauma, depression, anxiety, and working through difficult adjustments to life changes. Her greatest desire is to reflect the light of Christ in the midst of life’s dark moments.

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