Supporting Grieving Children During a Time of Loss

Friday, May 25th, 2018

Most children learn about death through a teachable moment in everyday life such as the discovery of a dead bird or toad. However, this does not totally prepare them for the feelings they experience after the death of a loved one.

Children are not able to understand death as adults do. For those under the age of two, they don't even understand the word but are able to sense a difference in the adults around them. Young children experience brief episodes of grieving mixed with normal play, appearing as if they are not greatly affected; but this is simply their way of processing the loss.

We often use standard phrases such as "lost" and "gone to sleep" to provide comfort, but these can confuse children who may not yet understand the finality of death. When a death occurs, children are concerned about the direct impact it will have on them. They may want to know who will make their lunch or whether they will still be able to go to play hockey. They look to adults for reassurance that someone will do these things and be there to love them.

The concepts of a soul and heaven are also difficult for children to grasp, so exploring their understanding of death can help shape your conversations with them. It is important to have these conversations, as the unknown can be frightening for them and their vivid imaginations will fill in what is missing. On the other hand, you do not want to overwhelm them with complicated information. Honesty and use of age appropriate language is important to help them understand.

The finality of death and its cause are beyond the grasp of young children. They may feel responsible for the death of a loved one. Letting them know that thoughts and words do not bring on a death will help reassure them.

Slightly older children may understand that death is permanent but fear their own death. Some will struggle to verbalize these feelings and act out with aggression, withdrawal or exaggerated fears. Teens are often concerned about losing emotional control so may withdraw and appear not to be grieving at all. Let them know you're there for them but give them space to grieve in their own way.

You can't protect a child from the confusion and pain of loss but you can help them feel safe, and help them learn effective ways to manage their feelings. If you are able to share your own emotions with children, without reacting uncontrollably, they will learn that it is OK to feel sad or upset.
It is important to keep normal routines reinforcing that life does go on; this gives them a sense of predictability.

Children will continue to process the loss as their understanding of death increases as they develop. A childhood loss will have a ripple effect as they progress through milestones in life such as their first date, graduation, or marriage.

No two children will react in the same way, so remain calm and do your best to be honest in your response. To help them process the experience and begin to heal emotionally, it is important that we provide stability; freely talk about the loss, about feelings, and about the good memories of the loved one.

If children are given the reassurance, caring, and affection of adults around them, they will learn to integrate the loss into their lives and take the coping skills learned from this experience forward to lead healthy, stable lives.

Nancy Gingerich, B.Ed., CT, is a grief and life transitions counsellor with Interfaith Counselling Centre

This column first appeared in the New Hamburg Independent:

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