Guiding Kids Through Grief
Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, accidents, old age, war and terminal illnesses are a part of life today. Death is never an if — it’s a when event. And with loss of people, pets and the familiar comes a stinging sadness. Educating children about death and guiding them through grief is something we prefer to avoid. But it’s one of our teachable moments. With our help, children can appreciate the feelings that are unique to this occasion, learn new coping skills and how to embrace life.
If you or someone else asks you, “How do I help my child grieve?” remember these two basic rules: Children grieve differently than adults and they’ll struggle with grief both now and in the future. Stacy Harp, marriage and family therapist at California-based Mind & Media says, “Children perceive death differently than adults because they are not fully developed intellectually or emotionally. It is very important to be sensitive to when they want to communicate, and also to be comfortable enough with them to discuss the topic yourself.”
Other ways to assist depend upon your child’s age. With a preschooler, here are important things to remember.
Three- to 5- year-olds:
• Will sense a loss even if adults try to hide it. Youngsters pick up nonverbal cues from you, family members, friends and even through the media.
• Don’t understand death. They think dead people continue to eat, drink and go to the bathroom in Heaven. Harp explains that young children perceive “. . . death as temporary or reversible because they watch cartoon characters who often ‘come back to life.’ What they see is what they understand.”
• Have magical thoughts. They can think, if I walk on a grave, the person feels it, if I had bad thoughts about the person then I caused the death or if I wish it, I can make someone live again.
•And because of their immaturity, they may have:
– Increased clinginess on or dependency toward you
– More tantrums
– Bed-wetting or constipation
– Nightmares or sleepwalking
So what can you do to help?
• Use the word “death” or “dead.” Never say, “went to sleep” or “passed away.” Get used to saying the word so it becomes less shocking.
• Answer questions in short sentences using simple, honest words.
• Give physical and verbal comfort as needed — holding a child is an effective calming tool.
• Stick to day and nighttime schedules including the same bed time every night.
• Dolls or pictures can help you answer questions or explain what happened. Similarly, “Find a good storybook that deals with the issue of loss or grief and spend some time reading the book to the child and then allow the child to ask questions and make observations,” advises Harp. “Many children may also benefit from drawing pictures of their loved ones and expressing things they may not be able to verbalize.”
Six- to 12-year-olds:
• Struggle with death as a permanent concept. They may expect the dead person or pet to return.
• Believe death won’t happen to them.
• May show a delayed response. It could be a week or a month later when they mourn.
• Ask more questions about “what happened” or show curiosity in causes of death.
• May confuse words like soul and sole or retell the death using incorrect words.
• And because of their development, they might exhibit:
– Loss of concentration resulting in daydreaming or poorer school performance
– Resistance to going to school
– Real or imagined abdominal pain, nausea or headaches
So what can you do to help?
• Be prepared for resistance to bedtime or going to school.
• Limit TV viewing of world tragedies that can fuel more fears.
• Read books about death and dying.
• Let them have closure. Because children are concrete thinkers, Harp advises giving them, “tangible ways to express their grief. So allowing them to go to the memorial service is good, and having a transitional object like a teddy bear or something that will remind the child of what was lost can also be helpful.”
• As much as possible, maintain the same household routines, bedtimes and mealtimes. Children feel safer when their life is comfortably predictable.
Teenagers may see death as:
• A natural enemy but “it won’t happen to me!”
• Unavoidable, so “what’s the purpose of life?” or “why is life unfair?”
• Getting old is the process leading to death.
• And because of normal teenage development, they might:
– Feel guilty, angry, confused or even responsible for the death
– Stay up watching TV to avoid going to bed alone
– Try to relieve grief through jokes, laughing or acting silly
– Struggle with not knowing how to feel, how to show emotions or when to “act” a certain way
– Withdraw or feel panic about the future
You can help teenagers by:
• “. . . the best way to help a teenager is to be available when they are ready to talk,” says Harp. Teens are unpredictable and can blurt out thoughts about death when you least expect it. “Remember, teens are in the process of individuation and when a death occurs, it puts them in a hard place because they want to ‘be an adult’ but they may have to admit they still need their parents.”
• Answering all concerns. If you don’t know, be honest and say so.
• Reminding them it’s the person’s life, not the death, that’s significant.
• Asking others such as ministers, youth leaders or friends to check on your teen if you don’t know how to handle certain situations.
• Enrolling your teen in a peer support group. “Peer support groups are the best because this gives the teen a sense of control and also connects them with others their age who are also grieving,” explains Harp. “Most teens will benefit from a peer support group that deals with grief, rather than talk to parents.”
Grieving is unique and personal. Reach out for help in guiding your children through it. Your community, church, family and friends can equip you in being the teacher each child needs. When you give love, understanding and support, you may be surprised at how well your children grow through grief.
“The Mourning Handbook: The Most Complete Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying,” by Helen Fitzgerald (Simon & Schuster, 1995).
“Tough Boris,” by Mem Fox. (Scholastic, 1994). About a pirate who cries when his parrot dies. Teaches that people can be both tough and tender.
“The Hickory Chair,” by L. Fraustino. (Scholastic, 2001). Depicts an ethnic family with a visually impaired boy who grieves the death of his grandmother.
“Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White. (Harper, 1952). Classic story about three friends: a pig, rat, and spider. When the spider dies, her friends grieve and remember special things about her.
“It’s O.K. to Cry,” by L.C. Anderson. (Children’s Press, 1979). A 4-year-old tries to tell his older old brother that their favorite uncle is dead. Includes questions and answers relating to the story and the topic of death.
“Look at Death,” by R. Anders. (Lerner, 1978). Pictures present the concept of death and the customs of mourning.
“Your Home in Heaven,” by Donna Wyland. (WinePress Publishing, 2003). Children’s picture book with Christian answers to questions about death.
Compassionate Friends – http://www.compassionatefriends.org. Assistance to parents, grandparents, and siblings following the death of a child of any age.
Good Grief Program – http://www.jbcc.harvard.edu. Provides guidance and assistance to parents and teachers on all aspects of childhood grief. Also distributes “The Death of a Friend: Helping Children Cope with Grief and Loss.” (color video, 15 mins.). Judge Baker Guidance Center; 295 Longwood Avenue; Boston, MA 02115
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Inc. (TAPS) – http://taps.org/index.cfm. A free book,
“Kids Journey of Grief Book,” is available by e-mailing TAPS at firstname.lastname@example.org to request a copy (survivors only) or to order multiple copies for a small fee.
In Charlotte and surrounding counties families can seek help or grief counseling from KinderMourn, www.Kindermourn.org. KinderMourn offers counseling services to children and teens (as well as adults) who have suffered the death of a loved one.