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Helping Grieving Children

Children of all ages grieve the death of a loved one. Oftentimes family members assume that the child is doing fine because they play with their toys, laugh, and seem unfazed by death. Unfortunately, this is the furthest from the truth.

Photo of Child

© Thomas Hawk/ Flickr

What happens to children when someone dies? They may inadvertently be shut out of sight of adult displays of mourning. They may be excluded from funeral services and sheltered from details surrounding the death. Adults may feel it is best to shield children from these things in an effort to ease their pain and confusion. Instead, we are denying our children the chance to work through their own grief. Depending upon their age and level of comprehension, children should be encouraged to discuss the death and participate with the rest of the family in funeral services.

Here are some ways to help children:

  • When words fail, a hug is perfect.
  • Don’t be afraid to cry in front of children. They must know that it is okay to cry. After all, we cry for those whom we loved very much; our tears are a tribute to the depth of that love. If we did not love we would not feel the need to cry. It may help to cry together; hold each other, but don’t pressure the child to express his feelings.
  • Children think they are immortal. “It can’t happen to me.” A child’s first experience with the death of a loved one shatters this illusion. A child may become terrified that he or she will lose someone else they love or rely on. Let the child confide his fears. They are not farfetched to the child. Reassure him that he is safe and that you are still here and will be for a long time.
  • Do not dismiss a child’s feelings of guilt over the death. Of course the child is not to blame, but his feelings can be very strong. He may feel he was “bad” or “naughty” and this caused such a bad thing to happen. It is excruciatingly difficult to see a child struggling with such feelings, but you must allow them to express these thoughts or they will never be able to resolve their guilt.
  • A child may express anger over the death. They may throw things, ignore household rules, or become disrespectful. It is natural for children to respond this way. Children need to talk over any feelings of anger they may have, to be assured that these feelings will pass, that they are not bad because they feel anger towards other survivors or their loved one who has left them by dying.
  • Do not expect that your moods will mirror your child’s. There will be moments when you are feeling relatively “normal,” and out of the blue your child may begin to cry. It becomes necessary at the expense of your own transitory sense of peace to delve into your child’s expression of sorrow. Certainly this affects you, but it is far worse to suppress a child’s spontaneous expression of grief. Conversely, it may be difficult when you are having an especially hard day to see your child so (seemingly) indifferent to your mood. You may want to talk about the death of your loved one, but your child may be disinterested. The implied message, “Not now, Mom,” can feel like the cold shoulder. Do not reproach the child. Allow him his moment of peace; you will have promoted his recovery.
  • Answer only those questions that the child actually asks. Volunteering unsolicited information about the death may only serve to overwhelm the child. Generally a child will let you know how much he can deal with at a given time.
  • Sometimes a child will become upset over an unrelated subject but the source of the reaction is unresolved feelings of grief. He or she may cry over a television program, or become unduly frustrated over a difficult task. Be observant; this may be a good time for you to ask your child if he would like to talk about his feelings. Give the child an opportunity to explore his feelings by acknowledging the real source of his stress, “Things really seem to be bothering you. I can understand. I sure do get mad at things myself.”
  • Talk often about the person who has died, remembering the happy times, recalling incidents. Laughter will come, and it is remarkably “medicinal.”
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