Experiencing the death of someone significant in your life can feel quite disorienting at any age. When this happens in childhood, grief needs can be very different from that of adults.
Bereavement in Children
In childhood, developmental understanding and coping styles within the family play a role in the child’s grief process, among other things such as culture and religion. Children of different ages have different styles of adapting and different abilities to understand abstract concepts like religion and death. Remaining concrete in your language around death will help children to begin the process of understanding.
Children are often left out of important details and rituals because the adults around them are consumed with their own pain or at a loss about how to address the children in a helpful way. This makes sense, none of us are handed a manual that guides us through the painful process of grief, let alone one that helps us figure out how to help a child through it.
It’s important to understand that first and foremost, children need to develop a vocabulary for their feelings, which will then help them learn how to handle those feelings in ways that help and not hurt them. For example, children need to know that it is okay to feel anger, frustration and sadness at any time after they have suffered the death of someone close to them. They need to know that when they feel this way, that there are people they can go to for comfort.
As you help a child you love to express themselves in their grief, you may find it helpful to seek out a trusted person such as a religious leader or counselor, to help guide you.
Parents or guardians often feel confused when faced with different reactions from their grieving children. Some parents worry their child is indifferent to death while others think their child is too emotional about it. Each child is an individual and will handle grief differently. However their children react, parents should not criticize them nor suggest that they act differently.
It’s not uncommon for younger children to ask you several times about the circumstances surrounding the death. This is generally to process what happened and to make sure the story has not changed.
Key Issues with Grieving Children
Children tend to worry about who will care for them if their other guardian dies; this is not because they don’t care about the person who died but because they are thinking about how they will get their own needs met in a world where they have to rely on the adults around them for that. They will process what they can at their age and feel different parts of their grief as they grow and change developmentally.
For instance, it can be quite natural for a 17-year-old to experience a renewed intensity of their grief as they approach high school graduation, after having worked through some painful grief at age 10, when they experienced their loss initially.
Children will take their lead from the adults around them about how to handle death. Find ways children can help the family during this time and be a part of mourning rituals so they too can feel supported through this. Inviting children to assist with a picture collage, help to organize a family event or preparing a special meal, can really help them feel included. There is great comfort in grieving with the rest of your family.
Grief can be a very isolating experience for children in school. They may not want to discuss the death because they don’t want to be viewed as different from their peers, which makes it all the more important that they can discuss the death at home with their family.”
The Value of Bereavement Support Groups
Allowing children to participate in a bereavement group offers them the opportunity to connect with other children their age who understand. Bereavement support for children has a special focus in creative arts activities to help children express themselves using a language that is fun and engaging for them. They learn what different words like grief mean and share ideas about how to cope and how to remember their special person who died.
Part of our role as adults is to help children learn about the realities of life and how to navigate them. Teaching children about death and helping them through their grief process teaches them how to handle future losses. Normalizing this experience helps them see that they can grieve and also still go on participating in life.