What is Grief?
Grief is the emotional and physical response to a major loss. Children experience grief differently based on their age, developmental level, cultural background, personality, environment, past experiences with death and trauma, as well as their relationship to the loved one who died. This means that each child has a different way of expressing their grief and a different need for support from caregivers.
Infants and toddlers do not understand death, but they are sensitive to changes in routine and the emotions of their caregivers. Common behavioral changes may include crying, clinging to caregivers, distress upon separating from caregivers, and difficulty with self-soothing.
Preschool-aged children are concrete thinkers, often struggling with separating fantasy from reality. They may believe they did something to cause the death, or they can do something to reverse the death. Common behavioral changes may include play involving themes of death (e.g., acting out a funeral), regressive behaviors (e.g., toileting accidents), nightmares, and separation anxiety.
Elementary-aged children are better able to understand the permanency of death and to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It is common for them to ask many questions (e.g., details of how a person died) and may worry about other loved ones dying. They are often attentive to how those around them are grieving and avoid showing their feelings to protect others from feeling sad. Common behavioral changes may include poor academic performance, increased irritability and moodiness, physical complaints (e.g., stomach pain, headaches), and sleep difficulties.
Adolescents are more abstract in their thinking and are more likely to question the meaning of life and death. It is typical for adolescents to seek social support from their peers instead of their caregivers. Common behavioral changes can include defiance, risk-taking, social withdrawal, irritability and moodiness, and poor academic performance.
Here are some strategies that may help your child cope with grief:
- Use direct, honest, and developmentally appropriate language when talking with children about death. It is better to use words such as “dead/died, body stopped working, can’t move/breathe/eat” rather than indirect words such as “passed away, gone to sleep, taken to a better place.”
- Assess children’s understanding of death/dying to help correct misinformation. For example, you can assure a child that not everyone who goes to the hospital dies or that not every illness is serious.
- It is okay to not know all the answers when your child asks questions about death/dying. Reflect the question back to them, “That’s a good question. What do you think happens when you die?”
- Validate all emotions, even when emotions conflict with one another (e.g., “It is okay to feel sad about mommy’s death AND happy she is no longer in pain.”)
- Let children know there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone grieves differently. There is no timeline to grief. While grief may change over time, it never completely goes away.
- Give the child the option of whether they would like to participate in the funeral/memorial. If they choose to attend, prepare them by letting them know where the service will take place, if there will be a casket (open or closed?), what is their role, and how people may respond to them.
- Keep routines and continue limit setting. This helps children feel secure and promotes normalcy during a time that can feel very confusing.
- Young children will likely benefit from comforting touch, speaking calmly, and reassuring them that they will always be taken care of.
- Encourage children to practice coping strategies they have used in the past such as sharing their feelings, engaging in physical activity, drawing, spending time with friends, etc.
- If your family identifies as spiritual, consider discussing spirituality with your child to help make meaning of the death, to connect with the deceased, and to cope with their grief (e.g., praying).
- Help the child identify a support network including caregivers, school staff, coaches, friends, religious leaders, etc.
- Connect with the child’s school prior to their return to discuss what information the child would like to have shared. Create a difficult day plan (i.e., identify helpful coping strategies and safe places and people when feeling big emotions at school) and plan drop-off and pick-up routines.
- Model healthy grieving. It is okay for your child to see you cry and show feelings.
- Help the child feel connected to their loved one. This includes making memory boxes (i.e., special memories including photos, artwork, souvenirs, letters), sharing memories, journaling, celebrating their birthday/favorite holiday, eating their favorite meal, creating a playlist of their favorite music, visiting their gravesite, and wearing their clothes/jewelry.
When to Seek Help
Because there is no “right” way to grieve, it can be challenging for caregivers to determine when a grieving child needs support from a mental health professional. However, the symptoms below may signal that your child would benefit from meeting with a mental health provider, especially if they last longer than 6 to 12 months: \
- Difficulty engaging with developmentally appropriate activities (e.g., attending school, maintaining friendships)
- Intense and recurrent nightmares, flashbacks, or thoughts about the death
- Self-blame, guilt, or denial about the death
- Changes in sleeping, eating, mood, or ability to focus
- Increased anxiety
- Intense avoidance of reminders about the person or their death
- Feeling like life no longer has meaning
If you are unsure whether your child is in need of additional support for their grief, ask your child’s primary care provider.
Schaefer, M. R., Tager, J., & Ehrhardt, M. (2023, June 10). Helping Children Cope with Grief. Retrieved from https://infoaboutkids.org/blog/helping-children-cope-with-grief/