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How To Help Children Cope with Grief and Death

This article was written by Dianne McKissock, Sydney psychotherapist, death education counsellor and co-director of the National Centre for Childhood Grief.

Children are often the forgotten mourners when a family experiences the death of one of its members. The language of their grief is not always easy to see or hear and is frequently misunderstood. For this reason, they may not receive the attention they need to help them learn to live with the pain of loss.

Do Children Grieve?

Yes – even very young children grieve the loss of what is significant in their life – people, places, pets and things. Like adults, children’s grief is most intense and prolonged when someone they love dies.

How Can You Tell if a Child is Grieving?

Children may cry initially, taking cues from parents and other adults. Later they may cry on the inside, and tend to show exaggerated responses to seemingly insignificant events, behave in an attention seeking way, or withdraw.

Grieving children and young people, like adults, feel vulnerable and regressed. They may need to do things that reassure them of their ability to survive. For example - playing with friends and acting as if nothing has changed. They are likely to:

  • Act out feelings rather than talk about them
  • Experience changes in eating, sleeping and behaviour patterns
  • Want to sleep with an adult – for comfort, and to make sure no one else dies (this is not a good idea in the long term)
  • Have difficulty concentrating at school or pre-school
  • Get tired easily
  • Return to bed wetting, thumb sucking or carrying a security object
  • Talk baby talk and want to be ‘babied’
  • Have nightmares, or grief dreams
  • Have difficulty with separations

Like grieving adults, children tend to become, for a while, an exaggerated version of their former self.

How Long Will Children Grieve?

That depends largely on:

  • The nature of the relationship the child had with the person who died
  • The nature of the loss – whether it was sudden, or traumatic
  • The age, health and personality of the child
  • The kind of support and understanding the child receives.

If the relationship is one that has been central to the child’s sense of self and security, part of them will grieve forever. With help, they will learn to live life around their distress so that it doesn’t control them or prevent them living fully.

What about Children at Funerals?

The funeral service is an important ‘rite of passage’. It allows families to acknowledge the reality of the death that has occurred and to honour the person who has died. Funerals also provide an opportunity for family and friends to feel connected in grief and supported by the wider community. Exclusion from this experience, no matter how loving the reasons given, in the long term tends to leave children with feelings of resentment.

Many children like to be involved in planning the service, and to have opportunities to place things in or on the coffin. Others don’t want to do anything. There is no right or wrong – each child should be able to do what feels best for them at the time.
If they are very young they may need an advocate to sit with them at the service, an adult whose grief does not prevent them being able to be child centred. Trusted friends or neighbours can be helpful in this role.

The ‘party’ afterwards seems to be important to many young children. They remember with warmth the presence of people who are important to them, and for once, the uncensored availability of food. The overall warmth of this potentially intense social experience helps them learn that sadness and happiness can coexist.

What do Grieving Children Need? 10 Ideas for Parents and Carers

1. Most of all, children need to be loved, understood and included in all aspects of family grief. Their world has changed suddenly from predictable and safe to chaotic and fearful. As they learn to accommodate the fact that not all things can be controlled, they need some familiar order to be restored. They need to be able to trust parents and other important care givers to tell them the truth, in simple, direct language, appropriate for their age.

2. Don’t use euphemisms in an attempt to soften facts. Use words like died and dead, rather than lost or passed away, or gone to sleep. Children tend to think literally and may fear going to sleep or being lost.

3. Give children simple biological explanations about death – for example, when you are dead you can’t eat, walk, talk, feel. Show them examples in nature. Save complex religious explanations until the child is really old enough to understand. Heaven is a complex concept. Don’t make ‘heaven’ sound better than life on earth. Don’t say mummy, daddy or a sibling is a star. Say something like ‘when we look at the stars we will think of mummy, because she is a star in our family.