Grief is Different for Kids: How to Help Your Child Cope with Loss

How to help your child deal with grief, death and loss of a loved one (freep.com)

Jennifer Brookland

Detroit Free Press

At some point in our lives, we will all experience the loss of a loved one. Grief is a completely normal reaction to that loss. But even though almost everyone goes through it, we are not so good at helping each other cope. Especially when the person grieving is a child.

Children’s grief can look different than it does for adults, and they often need different kinds of support and reassurance. Especially if the nature of the loss was sudden or traumatic.

There are many resources available for how to talk to your children about grief, find support for them and move forward as a family. Children’s books, professional counseling, music and art therapy workshops are some things that could help.

Here are a few things to consider if your child is at the beginning of a grief journey.

Educate yourself about how children grieve

Children process their grief differently than adults do, so knowing what to look out for can help manage expectations about feelings and behaviors for the years following the death of a loved one.

“Grief in children can be as complex as grief in adults,” said Joshua Magariel, regional director of patient experience with AccentCare Hospice and Palliative Care. It can manifest as physical pain, emotions such as anger, sadness, hurt or longing. Grief can be mental, when we dwell on certain memories, images or conversations.

It can pop up at the happiest of moments, and especially during milestones, when longing for the person who should have been there but is gone can pierce extra deep.

Children tend to grieve in spurts, going back and forth between their complex emotions and periods when they’re acting just like their usual selves. It doesn’t mean they’re finished grieving or callous people just because they’re acting happy and carefree. Validate their feelings when they’re immersed in grief and when they’re excitedly babbling about their weekend plans.

If you notice behavior that concerns you, contact a professional who can offer guidance and support.

Let your child experience grief

Children are going to grieve when they lose someone close to them. Trying to shield them from grief — theirs or family members’ — is well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful.

“Our worst instinct is to keep kids away from grieving processes,” said Debbie Vallandingham, director of grief care services.“They need to see it’s OK, they’re included, they’re not being kept in the dark.”

Vallandingham encourages “age-appropriate honesty.” Let children attend a service or funeral, if they’d like to. Don’t try to hide your emotions around them, lest they think they need to button up their own feelings too. Go ahead and talk about their loss when they feel ready, and about the good memories they hold on to. Memorialize the person in ways large and small, intimate and inclusive, as feels right.

This runs counter to how many adults tend to handle children’s grief — and really anyone’s, according to Magariel. Although some communities are especially supportive in times of bereavement, “We do happen to live in a mostly death-denying culture,” he said.

Allow your child to feel grief while arming them with coping skills. Help guide your child to activities that can help them find release and relief, such as writing or drawing, physical activity, hobbies, play, crying or talking.

“No one ever wants to introduce your child to death,” Vallandingham said. “But if you have to, make them resilient.”

Show your child they are not alone

Losing a loved one can feel extremely isolating for a child. Everything is different for them, and yet the world keeps going as it always has, as if their pain is invisible and meaningless. Going back to school, where friends and classmates may not know about the death or know how to respond can be especially challenging.

Experts say acknowledging the grief everyone is experiencing can help your child feel more understood.

“We can’t bubble-wrap our kids and protect them from grief,” said social worker Leah Bengel. “But we can show them they are not alone.”

To that end, if you are grieving alongside your child, make sure you’re also seeking out the support you need. If you are struggling to cope and move forward, your ability to help your child navigate this challenging time will be diminished. And working through grief together can make your relationship stronger.

One of the strongest indicators of how well a child does after the death of a significant person in their life is how strong their relationship is with the surviving adult or adults in their lives, and how well those adults are able to cope with their own grief.

Developmentally-appropriate ways to help children experiencing grief are available at the Dougy Center, and additional resources can be found through the National Center for Children’s Grief.

Jennifer Brookland covers child welfare for the Detroit Free Press in partnership with Report for America. Reach her at jbrookland@freepress.com.