Children and Grief

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I have to be honest and admit that I’d been putting off writing this article for some time now. That should give you an idea of my natural inclination to avoid the topic and simply not want to think about it. None the less, the loss of a loved one is a reality that each of us will have to deal with at some point in our lives and needs to be addressed. Whether it’s a family member, close friend, or family pet the way to approach speaking with your children depends upon their age. Different ages have different perceptions about life and death. You might want to use videos, books, or other age appropriate tools to help break the ice and promote discussion. Some material will feel more suitable than others, so make sure you preview them before introducing them to your children.

Generally, it’s important to be expressive about the loss versus trying to ignore it as if it never happened. The pain is there and it’s healthier to channel it via discussion than to keep it bottled up. The sooner you normalize feelings of grief and loss the faster individuals can recover. Your child(ren) will need your sympathy, understanding, and reassurance that they are not responsible in any way for the death. Keep in mind that everyone copes differently so it is vital to accept your child(ren’s) feelings and just provide support for them.

Make sure to let them know that they are not responsible, in any way, for the death

Under Two Years of Age
If your children are less than 2 years of age they will be able to pick up on all of the emotions surrounding the grief, sadness and anxiety but will have no concept or understanding about death. To help them cope it is important to maintain their normal routines, as much as possible, and show them that they are a priority in your life. There is no need for discussion about the loss in this age group as their perception of death is still not fully developed. Make sure to take care of yourself in dealing with the grief and hold it together. The last thing you want to do at this point is scare your children or cause them sadness because they see your pain. Demonstrate a healthy way of dealing with the loss and you may need to ask family or friends to stand in at times while you tend to yourself.

Two to Six Years of Age
Children at this age are in a magical thinking stage of development. They think that they can cause death, reverse death, with their own thoughts and words. They are still very influenced by the emotions of the people around them.

When talking about death to children in this age range you need to keep the conversation brief. Be clear and concrete – they do not understand the concept of heaven and you should not liken death to sleep because they might believe that going to sleep may lead to death. Be clear about the fact that death means that the person does not eat, grow, sleep or walk around anymore. You might be surprised what kids can handle. An option for explaining death in this age group is that the body stopped working (avoiding the word “sick”) – whether due to old age or because of a sad event (accident, etc.). You should help give them words to describe their feelings, and use clear and direct words about what you’re feeling. Make sure to let them know that they are not responsible, in any way, for the death. If you do not know the answer to a question, (and they will likely ask the same questions over and over in an attempt to understand) just let them know that you do not have the answer. Reassure them that you are there for them and that they are safe.

It is important for children in this age group to continue, as much as possible, with their normal schedules. Role play and working on art projects are ways for them to express and work out their feelings or any confusion they might have. So look at this as a window of opportunity for you to see where they are struggling and address it. Children in this age group are more susceptible to regress developmentally so you may see more tantrums, bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, and acting out behavior. Being patient and tolerant will help this period pass more quickly.

Six to Nine Years of Age
In this age group most children have a sense that death is final and irreversible. They may be very interested in the details regarding the cause of death and what happens to the body afterward. They may also believe that death is contagious, so it is important to be concrete with this age group as well. Be clear about what has happened, and be prepared to answer, as honestly as possible, many detailed questions. They may feel guilty about the death, and may still not have the ability to clearly express their feelings. You need to give them the words to help verbalize how they feel, and you must reassure them that they are in no way responsible.

This age group may express their sadness by wanting to stay close to family rather than go to school. They may complain of stomachaches or headaches. It is important to normalize and talk about their feelings and fears. Be honest about what you know and what you do not know. Be concrete and do not explain death as sleep or going to heaven.

Nine to Twelve Years of Age
Children in this age group are more mature and have a better sense of the finality of death and the aftermath. Sometimes children in this age range go on with life easily for a bit before the loss begins to hit them. They will be concerned about how the death affects them and their lives. They might be less open about their feelings and fears, even though they are more aware of them. Anger, guilt, fear and even phobias may develop. It is important to support them in whatever stage they are in and direct them toward more constructive outlets (like hobbies) for their anger and sadness. If there are other adults who they like and respect in your lives, see if they can also make time to spend with them, especially if you are grieving yourself and feel unable to do this alone.

Thirteen to Eighteen Years of Age
Teenagers see most things as black and white. Good or bad. So for most in this scenario, death is bad. The range of emotions and reactions is as vast as it is in adults. Sadness, anger, indifference, romanticizing or intellectualizing death are all possibilities. As with most things, teenagers prefer to share their emotions with their peers. The risk is that, at these ages, some will become depressed; some will want to prove their invincibility with risk taking behaviors, while others will look for an escape from their feelings via substance abuse or promiscuity.

To support a grieving teenager you need to be available when and how they would like for you to be. You should try to find other adults or peers who they respect and can turn to as well. They may act as if they do not need help or support, but they do. This is a time when you must be very aware of your children’s behaviors and actions. Do not burden them with adult responsibilities, and give them some leeway; yet be prepared to jump in should it become necessary.

People who have experience helping children deal with loss will be a support system for both you and your children. If you or your children are having trouble coping with the loss and grief in your lives you should contact a therapist and possibly a spiritual leader in your community for help and guidance.