"Any one who is old enough to love is old enough to grieve" according to leading grief educator and counselor, Alan Wolfelt. However, children are often considered the 'forgotten mourners' because adults may be grieving their own loss and uncertain of how to support their grieving child. Children of all ages grieve when someone dies. Caring adults who are open, honest and loving can help children learn about the joy and pain that comes from loving and losing special people in their lives.
Helping Infants and Toddlers
Even the very young, who are not yet verbal, grieve when someone close to them dies. Although they do not have the language to communicate, their behaviors may reflect the feelings they have inside. Infants and toddlers, who are not developmentally mature enough to fully understand the concept of death, do realize when someone important is now missing from their world. They are also receptive to the emotional losses of those around them. Mostly they need our love and attention. The best way to provide support to your young one is to provide comfort, care and consistency, keeping change to a minimum.
Losing a loved one can be a confusing time for children of this age who have limited experience with loss and are very concrete thinkers. These children may respond to death in various ways. They may regress in their behaviors, such as thumb sucking, bed- wetting, and clinginess. Some may seem unaffected while others may show increased anxiety and fear. Take your cues from your child's behaviors providing them with much nurturing and acceptance of whatever feelings surface. Avoid punishing for regressive behaviors, which is your child's way of coping. Children may try to make sense of death by asking repeated questions, be patient and offer simple, honest explanations. Providing your child with toys, books and time to play is a safe way to help them express their grief. Play is their world and helps them to understand what is happening in their life.
Helping Elementary Children
Children are naturally curious at this time in their life, so a normal response to the death of a loved one will include lots of questions about the death and the rituals in which you participate. Children at this age may also regress in their behaviors. Don't be alarmed if your child wants to sleep with you or starts wetting the bed. This is a cue that your child is in need to your acceptance and assurance rather than punishment. When talking to your child about the death, it is important to use the words, dead, died, and death. It is a natural urge to try to shield children from the pain of death by using phrases such as "passed on", "at rest", "gone away", or "lost". Although these terms may seem comforting they are also confusing and may create more anxiety for children. Spirituality issues can also be confusing due to the abstractness of concepts. Try to use very simple terms in a loving way when explaining your beliefs. Just as with preschoolers, play is very much a part of their world and gives them an outlet for their emotions. Continue to maintain safe boundaries and offer them ways to express their grief.
Helping Upper to Middle School Age Children
Children during this time are developing mentally, physically and socially at various rates. You may expect to see a wide range of emotions and behaviors related to the death. The spectrum may range from seeming unaffected all the way to extreme emotional outbursts within a short span of time. It is normal for them to be curious about the biology of death and details surrounding the arrangements and rituals. Don't worry about having all the answers, but offer to seek out the information they are wanting with your child. As with all children, they need acceptance, assurance and opportunities to express their emotions. Even though youth at this age may not initiate affection, hugs and touch can offer comfort and safety during this time of confusion and uncertainty.
Teen years can be naturally difficult. They are no longer children but not yet adults. A teen's reaction may be similar to adults but because of their limited life experiences they may not have the necessary tools to cope with these intense emotions. Natural reactions to the death of a loved one may include questions about their beliefs or spirituality, insecurity about their future and either criticizing or idealizing the person who died. These are all normal responses and at these times, adults need to listen without argument and provide acceptance and assurance. Unfortunately, teens often have access to drugs and alcohol, which they may turn to as a means of numbing their pain. Be proactive, model healthy coping strategies (journaling, talking, music, exercise, gardening, etc) so they have ideas of how to deal with their emotions in a safe way. Don't assume that your teen is finding healthy support among their peers. Many times friends are unable to provide the kind of support needed due to their lack of life experiences. Encourage them to seek support among trusted friends and adults.
What About Funerals?
Since the funeral is a significant event, children--no matter how young--should have the same opportunity to attend as any other member of the family. Encourage, but never force the child to attend. Take time to explain the purpose of the funeral--it is a time to say goodbye, a time to be sad that our loved one is dead, but also a time to share special memories and celebrate the time we had together. If they choose to attend, children can also participate in the service by lighting a candle, placing a memento, letter or photo in the casket. For young children, viewing the body of the person who died can also be a positive learning experience. This gives them an opportunity to see what death looks like. Explain that the person is not sleeping and that the body has stopped breathing and working altogether. Help them understand that the body no longer feels, hears, eats and does not experience pain. This support and attention to their needs as a griever can help minimize fears and allow them to participate in a meaningful way. However, children should never be forced to attend or view the body if they are unwilling. It is also important to respect your needs as a griever. Services are difficult for adults as well. It may be helpful to arrange for a familiar, trusted friend or relative to help you provide care for your young child when they may be ready for a break or time away. This allows everyone in the family the time they need to participate in this important ritual.
New York Life Foundation Resources
This 26-page booklet was created by the New York Life Foundation for parents and other adults to help children who have suffered the loss of a parent or loved one through their grief. Written by a leading expert in the field of childhood bereavement, it offers suggestions to help children cope.
Designed for educators, this is a condensed version of After a Loved One Dies -- How Children Grieve compiled by our partner, educational publisher Scholastic.