The death of a close family member or friend is difficult at any age, but it can be particularly painful for children who have not yet developed the skills to cope with grief.
Parents, caregivers, and counselors, however, can help kids mourn the loss of a loved one in a healthy way by being sensitive to their needs, providing a safe environment, and giving them the vocabulary to define their feelings.
“It is incredibly important to help kids process a death or traumatic event in their life,” said Pete Shrock in an interview, formerly the chief programs officer for Comfort Zone Camp, based in Richmond, Virginia, which hosts bereavement camps across the country for kids and adults. “If we look at kids who have lost a parent or a brother or sister as poor, grieving children, I think we underestimate their ability to contribute to their own healing. We create a victim, as opposed to a child who has the ability to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.”
How to begin
The process of healing, he noted, begins with teaching kids what grieving is in an age appropriate and developmentally appropriate way.
“Grief is a normal, healthy response to a death,” said Shrock. “Anger, sadness, happiness, joy, and sorrow are all valid, necessary emotions. It’s how we respond to those emotions that is either healthy or unhealthy.”
Parents and caregivers should remember that grief is a lifelong process, especially for kids, said Shrock. They mourn not only the loss of that person’s presence in their lives today, but also the moments that will never be — a father who will not be there to walk his daughter down the aisle, a sister to confide in.
Thus, the goal is not to help kids “get over” a person’s death, but to learn to live with the reality of their loss and help them adapt, said Andy McNiel in an interview, former chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Grieving Children.
In homes where a grieving child’s needs are effectively met, personal growth is often the by-product of a significant loss, he said, noting that that does not diminish their sense of loss or grief.
Kids who lose a loved one, particularly a parent or sibling, often exhibit greater compassion toward others, value relationships more deeply, and experience a greater appreciation for life, according to experts.
“They’ve now experienced something that other kids their age haven’t and they know something about life that other kids don’t know,” said McNiel. “In time, that can lead to a deeper appreciation for the people in their lives.”
What is the number one predictor of a healthy outcome? The parent or caregiver’s ability to be present for the child, which can be hard if he or she is mourning the loss as well, said McNiel.
“The parent or caregiver’s health, and how they are dealing with the loss themselves, is directly related to how the child will deal with that loss,” he said. “If the relationship is one of trust and mutual respect, if the child feels comforted and safe, those are the children who exhibit post-bereavement growth."
To that end, families who experience a significant loss should seek out support groups together, where they can share their stories, gain strength from those who suffered a similar loss, and recognize they are not alone.
“There are local support groups all over the country where kids and parents can get help,” said McNiel. “Getting the support you need as a grieving person gives you the energy you need to be a parent.”
A few guidelines for talking with your kids in a developmentally appropriate way, offered by professional counselors, may also help:
Comforting kids younger than age 5
The youngest children are not yet able to grasp the concept of death. They don’t understand it is permanent and may ask caregivers when they are going to see that person again.
Similarly, they struggle to comprehend that people who have died are no longer animated.
“There can be a lot of confusion at this age,” said McNiel. “In their mind, that person is living at the cemetery. If it’s very cold out, the child might ask if they should ‘bring Daddy a blanket.’”
Kids younger than age 5 also take comments literally.
A seemingly harmless euphemism for death, such as “Mommy is sleeping,” gets translated in the child’s mind to “Mommy is living in a box in the ground,” said McNiel.
They may also be confused about the concept of heaven and ask if they can "die today" to go see their friend or family member and come back tomorrow.
“It is difficult to use words like ‘death’ or ‘die,’ but those are really the words that need to be used,” said McNiel. “It is very important to use concrete language so they don’t get confused.”
Refrain from gruesome details, but do be honest, he suggested: “As part of the ongoing conversation, they will come to understand.”
At this age, Shrock added, repetition is helpful. “Explain that that person is no longer with us and that their body has stopped working.”
Without pushing your kids to grieve in a manner you think is appropriate, encourage them to share their memories, show pictures of the lost loved one, and talk about them regularly in the course of conversation.
Helping kids ages 6—9 cope
Slightly older children start to grasp the permanence of death and may seek more answers to what happened to the body, where it is, and whether that could happen to them.
Due to their age and immaturity, they are also egocentric and “magical thinkers,” meaning they tend to believe they can control the world around them, said McNiel.
For example, if their parent dies suddenly a day after they got in trouble for something at home, they often blame themselves.
Their grief may come and go from day to day and often manifests in trouble sleeping, a drop in grades at school, and regressive behaviors like bedwetting, said McNiel.
And, they may experience separation anxiety, fearing that their surviving parent or caregiver may die too.
“That’s a normal reaction, especially when a child loses a parent, because they know now that their parent can die,” said McNiel. “When they ask what would happen if you die, what they’re really asking is, ‘What would happen to me?’”
The natural, and easier, reaction is to reassure them that nothing is going to happen to you, but there are no guarantees.
A better response is to say, “I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. I hope to live a long life, but here’s what the plan is if that should happen,” said McNiel. “Often that brings great relief to the child, knowing that they would be OK.”
Grieving during early adolescence: Ages 10—13
The relationship you have with your grieving child becomes even more critical during early adolescence.
Children naturally begin forming their own identities and breaking away from the family unit during the middle school years, which is healthy, but it can also lead to isolation, said Joe Primo, chief executive of Good Grief, a nonprofit that provides education, outreach, and free bereavement programs for grieving children, teens, and adults.
Grieving pre-teens usually do not want to feel different from their peers, or be identified by their loss, he said in an interview.
They are more inclined to suppress their feelings and may also engage in risky behavior.
At the same time, they may be excluded from events and activities because their friends or friends’ parents are not sure what to say, which further segregates them from their peer support group.
“It’s not done out of malice, but kids who are grieving are often disinvited from things in their community because their presence makes people uncomfortable,” said Primo. “The hosts don’t know how to talk about it or are afraid to say something that makes it worse. As a culture, we have a lot of work to do in dealing with our emotional IQ and learning to talk about uncomfortable things.”
Thus, parents should make themselves available to their grieving children as much as possible, not on their own terms, but on their child’s, said McNiel.
“That time right before bedtime is valuable,” he said. “We may have stopped tucking them in, but this is a good opportunity to check in with them.”
Don’t grill your children for information, or ask 20 questions. Instead, just talk with them. Tell them about your day, share a funny story, or discuss something interesting that happened in the news. Keep the dialogue flowing.
“The idea is to engage them in conversation,” said McNiel. “It’s about taking the time to have a relationship with your child and create a safe environment for them to share.”
Teens: Making meaning out of loss
As they mature into young adults, kids will process their loss in a more meaningful way.
When the death involves a parent, teens are often acutely aware if their surviving parent is in a “grief fog.” As a result, they may assume greater responsibility for nurturing their younger siblings or feel anxiety about the family finances, said Primo.
They may also separate their own grief narrative from that of their parent’s.
“Pre-teens and teens may try to make meaning out of their loss,” said Primo. “If a child comes from a deeply religious family, the mom may move deeper into her faith, while the teen may start to reject religious ideologies.”
Young adults may also be influenced more heavily by external variables, including their peer group and the level of support they receive (or don’t receive) at school.
“Unfortunately, a lot of kids who suffer a loss deal with bullying from other kids who simply can’t empathize or understand the magnitude of hurtful things that get said on the playground, on the sports field, or in the classroom,” said Primo.
Teens who are under emotional stress are also more likely to push back on boundaries. Despite their own grief, parents and caregivers should not give in, said McNiel.
“Maintaining discipline and holding teens accountable is critical to their safety and well-being,” he said. “That’s part of a healthy dynamic between a teen and a parent. If the parent is too stressed out and lets the teen do whatever he or she wants, that can become dangerous.”
Ultimately, he noted, the ability to communicate with your teen in times of stress hinges on your relationship. “So many parents say they can’t seem to get control of their teens and I say, ‘Tell me about your relationship,’” said McNiel. “'Do they see you as a person they can trust, as a nurturer? Have you been honest with them throughout this experience?'”
Open, honest communication, he said, is a critical component to maintaining a healthy balance at home.
Involvement at the end
Don’t be afraid to include children of all ages in end-of-life rituals, including the funeral, said McNiel; let them say goodbye.
“Quite often, parents try to protect their children from the reality of what’s happened, but in doing that we leave them to grieve alone,” said McNiel. “Allow children to be a part of the process, as they feel comfortable, and give them good information about what to expect at the funeral and over the next several weeks and months.”
Engage them, be present, and provide opportunities to let your kids express their feelings.
Death is an inevitable part of life, but it is never easy.
Children, in particular, need love, honesty, and emotional support to help them navigate their feelings and make sense of their new world order.
“Grief is not just an emotional experience, but a physical, intellectual, and spiritual one, too,” said Primo. “Creating a safe environment within the home that allows honesty and gives permission to express the wide variety of feelings that come up goes a long way. When families can be vulnerable together, they are able to rebuild their lives both individually and as a family unit.”
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This article was originally published September 2016. It has been updated.