Statistics in the United States show us that 1 in 13 children will lose a parent or sibling by the time they reach 18 years of age, and almost all children, approximately 90% will experience the death of a close family member or friend.
Children’s Grief Awareness Day, held on the third Thursday in November every year is intended to remind us that children grieve too, but many may not have the tools necessary to cope with the loss of a loved one or the anticipatory loss of a loved one. As the holiday season draws near, grieving children can have a tough time dealing with this time of the year when many gather to celebrate with loved ones, making this season extra sensitive for them as they remember the loss of their loved one.
You may have heard the saying that any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Therefore, when children grieve, children need to feel seen, heard, and cared for. Just like other important topics to learn in life, grief is another topic that parents/caregivers can teach, prepare, and process with children, even if it is a challenging one.
Signs of Grief in Children
First and foremost, children grieve similarly and differently than adults. Children do often feel the intense emotions of grief just like adults. However, how children process grief may look different. Here are just a few signs, but often behaviors tell more than words expressed.
Grieving in smaller spurts, showing sadness occasionally
Utilizing play to express thoughts and feelings
Physical complaints, such as stomachaches
Regression in behaviors, such as bedwetting
Here are some ways that parents/caregivers can help a grieving child:
Don’t ignore your own grief Remember the "put on your oxygen mask first" analogy, take care of yourself and your own needs so that you can provide support and understanding for your child. Attempting to hide your own grief may send an indirect message that grief should be hidden.
Be honest, and use simple words to talk about the death Utilize simple and age-appropriate language to share clear and accurate information. Children deserve to know the truth. Children and adults may see and hear the same things, but children’s understanding may be quite different. Not talking about death often leaves children wondering and worrying alone.
Acknowledge the grief Recognize that your child is grieving. Listen to your child’s story and validate emotions. Be aware of your own grief so as to not impose your grief on your child.
Encourage your child to ask questions and put feelings into words Children may have questions but may not know when or how to ask. Create space and time for conversation by sharing your own emotions and stories, and ways that helped you cope with a certain emotion. It is okay to say I don’t know the answer.
Maintain structure and routine Predictability gives children a sense of security knowing that life goes on. Address any events that will happen or any expected necessary changes.
Set clear expectations and boundaries Children get a sense of security when they know what is expected of them. Some children may use feelings of pain to justify inappropriate behaviors. Teach children that no matter how they feel, acknowledgment and validation do not mean that they are not accountable for their choices.
Provide opportunities to remember the person Sharing stories, looking at pictures, or doing an activity that memorializes the person allows your child to feel connected to the loved one. Remind your child that even though the loved one is not physically present, the relationship is always present.
Give your child a creative outlet Music, art, and craft activities give children creative outlets to express feelings. There are many guided journals and apps surrounding grief.
Reassure children Remind children that many love them and you are there for them. Find and indicate alternative support people that they are able to talk to.
Find community and seek further help Seek information regarding your local support groups, grief walks, grief camps, etc. Children may often feel that they are the only ones going through the pain. Helping them seek community can expand their horizon and perspectives while making friends with other kids who are going through similar experiences.
Our team at Hearts Connected is also available to help you or your child navigate conversations surrounding grief/loss. We have a free monthly webinar called "Healing Hearts: Supporting Children and Families Coping with Grief". Visit our events page for registration details.