For children and teenagers, the death of a parent, sibling, or other significant person is an experience that will change their lives forever. Dealing with grief can make a child’s life seem out of control — they may be bombarded with emotions that they don’t have the life experience or the necessary coping skills to handle. For many children, it may seem as if nothing will ever feel right again.
It has been said that children generally grieve in “spurts,” with a wide range of emotions and reactions. One minute they may be playing, then suddenly cry, and then return to happy, “normal” behavior. Children don’t sustain grief the same way as adults; children grieve and then often move away from the pain. That’s because most children can only endure these intense feelings of grief for a short time. Because they do not “show” their grief like adults, those around these children may assume they’re not grieving and don’t need support. Sometimes the adults close to children believe that they do not understand, but that’s not usually the case.
Often, children seem to cope very well with death but exhibit behavioral changes a few months later. For example, it may take a child longer to realize the meaning and impact of death, or they wait to express their grief until their environment seems more stable and safe.
When a family member dies, it affects the way the family functions as a whole. All the relationships within the family may shift. Because of this, children may mourn not only the person who died but also the change in the family environment, and the changing roles family members may play. Such profound change will usually affect them in the immediate and future years ahead. A critical factor in how much or to what extent children are affected by loss is the support they receive from their community: parents, siblings, extended family, and friends.
Children need to be allowed to experience and express their feelings of grief, such as sadness, anger, relief, confusion, etc. They need support and encouragement to understand what happened, identify their feelings, and embrace their loved one’s memory.
HealGrief provides information about ways to help a child understand death and the signs of grief in a child. As an adult or parent helping a child deal with the grieving process, familiarizing yourself with children’s typical reactions and needs can help you support that child.
Ways to help a child understand death
Talk to children about death in simple but matter-of-fact terms. Normalize death (“it happens to everyone and every living thing, but usually when we are very old”) and be clear about what it means.
Use truthful words like “dead, dying, died” and “buried, cremated.” “When someone dies, it means that their body stopped working.” It may seem gentler to make death sound less final, but that can confuse a child.
Keep your answers brief but clear. Be honest about what’s happened and encourage questions.
Show your emotions — being authentic and honest provides a meaningful model for your child.
Show patience, reassurance, and calm support as often as you can. A return to their everyday routines will help children feel some normalcy. It will also help ease some of their fear of death, even while they begin to understand its permanence.
Common reactions to grief
Children share many common symptoms of grief that adults experience, but some subtle differences need to be acknowledged.
Fear: The most fundamental feelings of loss for a child are fear and uncertainty: What happened? Who will die next? How will we live now? Will my parent(s) ever be happy again? Will my other parent die? How often does death occur? Who will take care of me? Where will I go if I die? Why did this happen to me? And, especially, Will I die? Some children may withdraw and become very quiet, frozen in fear.
Children and teens of all ages must work through their fearful feelings until they come to an understanding. It may be stressful for parents and children (e.g., nightmares, physical symptoms, regression). However, if children receive sufficient attention and nurturing during this fearful time, they will eventually recover a sense of the fundamental dependability of life. Listen to a child’s fears and validate that they are experiencing very difficult feelings.
Regression: Some children act younger or regress. They want the reassurance or the care and attention they received when they were younger.
Overachieving: Some children become overachievers in an attempt to contradict their feelings of helplessness. They may do everything “right,” even to the extent of parenting their parents.
Displays of power: Some children exhibit exaggerated displays of force to counteract their fears, which may take the form of bad behavior, acting out, anger or belligerence.
Guilt: There are many kinds of guilt about a death. It’s common for children to feel guilt over what they might have done to cause, or might not have done to prevent, a death. This type of guilt can ease children’s fear when someone dies. In addition, taking unrealistic responsibility for a death gives children a false reassurance that they can prevent unwanted events if only they try harder.
All children attempt to make sense of what is happening in their environment, sometimes filling in the gaps with their imagined explanations. Remind your child of the facts of the situation: “It’s not your fault. The other car was coming toward us too fast, which is why it hit us and killed Daddy.” As they develop, children begin to comprehend that tragic events happen in life and they are not responsible for them.
Anger: Different kinds of anger can be expressed during grieving. There may be unresolved issues between a child and the person who died, which can leave the child feeling angry. They may be angry about the injustice of their loss.
Anger can also be an antidote to fear, manifesting in an outward display of personal power. For example, a child may communicate through anger and may become rebellious or resistant to counteract the vulnerability of feeling fear and sorrow.
Sorrow: When a child feels sorrow, they may be ready to accept the truth of their loss. Sorrow can be an expression of a child’s feelings of vulnerability as they continue to live without the person who died. For example, the child may grieve a loss of security. Loving arms around a child or teen who cries with sorrow can offer safety and acceptance in a world that includes the death of those we love.