Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a place where nobody ever dies or gets sick, a place where school shootings do not exist and natural disasters do not destroy? Yet the reality is that we live in a broken world where there is death and tragedy, and sadly, children are no strangers to loss and grief. While dealing with loss and grief can be difficult for anyone, children’s reactions may differ from those of adults. Here are some suggestions to consider when helping a child who is grieving.
The age of the child will affect the way they understand loss and grief. Younger children might not understand the permanence of death or may believe they are somehow responsible for a tragic event. Older children engage in concrete thinking and might ask for more details if they want to know more. They will understand the consequences of a loss and that a person who dies will not be around anymore. Different ages will need differing levels of explanation.
Children need to know they are safe and secure, so it is best to hear hard news from someone they feel safe with, someone they trust. While you might think it’s in their best interest to either wait or spare them bad news, it is important for children to hear as soon as possible so they can start facing the loss. Silence is seldom helpful, though often tempting.
It is also important to prepare them for what lies ahead. If this is the beginning of a long illness, telling children early helps them prepare. If there is a funeral coming up, explain what they will encounter in the days ahead. Even if a child was not directly exposed to a tragedy such as a school shooting or natural disaster, he or she may have heard the news or adult conversations and still feel stress or anxiety. Make a point of raising the topic to a depth appropriate to their level of understanding.
Children often go in and out of grief, so be patient. Answer any questions they have, even if they are hard questions. Some children might ask a lot of questions, some might communicate without words through actions and reactions. A grieving child might have a physical symptom of grief like a loss of appetite, or emotional symptoms like mood swings or severe crying. It is not uncommon for a child to revert to an earlier stage of development and suck their thumb or wet the bed. Children might become aggressive when angry or clingy when scared. Recognize bad behaviors as symptoms of underlying grief, and address the grief more than the behaviors.
When you do say something, be direct and especially honest so that there is less confusion for the child. Use simple concrete language, avoiding euphemisms. And always provide reassurance, letting the child know you care. Acknowledge the feelings of hurt, sadness, and fear. Here are some guidelines when you talk to a child:
If someone is dying, encourage children to say good-bye and express their emotions. And don’t feel you need to hide your own grief. Remembering the person who died is part of the healing process. Share memories and pictures, talking about the loved one. If a traumatic event means there are changes, involve children in those decisions as appropriate. Giving children choices whenever possible helps them regain a sense of control.
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Grief is a natural consequence of losing something or someone important. Acknowledge that pain as appropriate, validating your and the child's feelings of loss. May your shared loss let your relationship grow stronger.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster