Helping Children Deal with Grief and Loss
One of the most common questions I’ve received is how to help children and teens deal with grief and loss. Often parents and caregivers understandably feel overwhelmed by their own emotions and struggle to support their child through the grieving process. Sometimes parents don’t want to upset their child and are unsure of how to explain death in a way that will make sense, especially when children are younger.
By leading therapy groups for children and teens who have experienced a significant loss in their lives, I have learned a few key guidelines for supporting children through the grieving process:
Be honest. Children, and especially teenagers, pick up more information than most parents think. Death can be explained to even very young children in simple, honest terms. Don’t try to hide what happened, and give age appropriate details about the death. With young children, you can explain in literal terms (“Grandpa’s heart had a problem and it stopped working”).
Confront your own feelings. This might be the hardest of all to do, but if you are uncomfortable speaking about death or if you are having a hard time managing your own emotions, you will have a hard time supporting your children. Take the time to speak to a therapist of your own, or have a friend or family member help watch your children while you take some time for yourself to grieve. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting your child.
Allow your child to express grief in their own way. People all grieve in their own way and in their own time. Let your child know that you are there to talk if they want, but don’t force them. Grief isn’t rational. It may come out as intense outbursts of sadness or anger, or it may appear in episodes of being unusually withdrawn and quiet. Feeling scared, angry, sad, confused, or numb are all normal responses to death. Your child may suddenly act out in ways that appear unrelated to the death. Don’t place expectations on your child to feel certain emotions or react in a specific way.
Seek support. This is also incredibly difficult for many people, but a period of grief is a time when your entire family will need support, emotionally and otherwise. Be sure you and your child both have someone to talk to, whether it’s a support group, a trusted friend, or a therapist. Ask for help with meals, cleaning, and childcare from friends, family, and your community.
Avoid placing too much responsibility on your child. Teenagers and older children have a tendency to feel an unnecessary burden of responsibility after a death in the family. They may feel that they need to “take the place” of a deceased parent or other caretaker. They might see you struggling and want to help by taking on more adult roles. Check in with your child about their stress level. Be sure they are able to focus on their own responsibilities at school and home without feeling like they need to take care of you.
Share your grief. Don’t be afraid to express your own sadness and grief with your children. It’s OK to cry with them and tell them that you are sad, and it will help show them that it’s OK to express their grief too.