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How to help a child deal with grief

6 min read   •   September 16, 2021
Dr Jeanné Roux – Educational Psychologist

Coping with the loss of a person or pet you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming, which is a natural response. Your child may experience many difficult and unexpected emotions, including shock, anger, disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. Physical health can also be influenced, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief will be.

How to communicate the loss to your child

A loss is an opportunity to teach your child about death and how to deal with grieving in a healthy, emotionally supportive way. You can use this time to help your child feel safe and develop healthy coping skills. The words you choose will vary depending upon the child’s age and developmental stage, but experts agree that no matter what the age of the child, there are certain guidelines you can follow.

  • Follow the child’s lead. Too much information may be overwhelming. Very young children often do not realise that death is permanent. Older, school-age children understand the permanence of death, but they may still have many questions. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly. Even if you do not have an answer, being available to your child is what matters. If your child asks a question to which you do not have an answer, explain to them that you do not know and that sometimes, it is alright not to have all the answers.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings. Do not hide your own sadness. Children will know that something is wrong, which may lead to them feeling alone, confused, or even seeing sadness as something bad. However, try not to let children see your most upset moments, as they may begin to worry about you or feel insecure. It is good for kids to express whatever emotions they are feeling. Reading books about death together can be a great way to start a conversation with your child. Drawing pictures, scrapbooking, looking at photos, or telling stories are ways in which young children can express emotions when they are not able to verbalise them.
  • Do not use fuzzy language or euphemisms. Avoid potentially vague phrases like ‘passed away’, ‘gone’, ‘we lost him’, or in the case of a pet, ‘put down’. Kids can be very literal, and this kind of language leaves them anxious, scared and, often, confused. Conversely, it may lead them to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent. It is important to explain what death is and to use straightforward terminology, for example, ‘Spot died from old age’.
  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Grief takes time but regular routines and knowing that life goes on provides security, which is beneficial to you and your child.

Also read: How to support your family during a crisis

  • Memorialise the one who died. Remembering the deceased loved one is part of grieving and healing.
  • Be considerate about the death of a pet. For many children, the death of a pet will be their first exposure to death. Children can form strong bonds with their pets and can be intensely upset when losing a pet. Guard against minimising the pet’s importance, and refrain from immediately replacing the dead pet with a new animal.

  • Give your child time to grieve. Reiterate that there is no timeframe for loss. Specify that they will feel better with time, but the person or pet will always play a special role in their memories.

Tips to help children deal with loss and gain closure

  • Tell the truth about what happened right away.
  • Be prepared for a variety of emotional responses. Realise that any way you approach this, your child will be upset.
  • Allow your child to ask questions and deliver small bits of information based thereon.
  • Allow your child to participate in rituals. Let them pick photos, a song, or flowers for the memorial. Participation helps grieving people regain a sense of control.
  • Let your child grieve in their own way. Every child reacts differently. Whether your child is silent and detached, talkative and inquisitive, or seemingly unaffected by the loss, there is no right way to grieve.
  • Prepare your child for the future. Talk about how life looks without the pet or person.
  • Prepare to talk about thoughts and feelings often. Be available for ongoing discussions.
  • Remember to take care of yourself. Children learn what they see, so be a role model for self-care.

Read more: Beware burnout: 10 tips to help you recover

  • Connect with your child. You may feel helpless, uncomfortable, or unsure of what to say, but even a touch or a hug can offer great comfort.
  • Keep to your daily routine. Children need consistency.
  • Laughter is a great healing tool, so do not let yourself feel guilty about feeling joy or happiness in other things during this period.
  • Remember, there is no time limit to bereavementIf you need additional support, reach out to your child’s school, physician, psychologists, or religious community.

Also read: The art of destressing: Ways to help your child unwind

Signs to look out for that your child might not be dealing with the loss healthily 

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry expresses that short-term responses to grief are normal in children. Be aware of signs that they need more support:

  • Nightmares
  • Believing the world is generally unsafe
  • Irritability, anger, and moodiness
  • Poor concentration
  • Appetite/sleep disturbances
  • Ongoing behaviour problems
  • Regression to earlier behaviour in young children (clinging, bedwetting, or thumb-sucking)
  • Detachment/withdrawal from others
  • Use of alcohol/drugs in teens
  • Inability or refusal to go to school, learn, or play with friends
  • Ongoing anxiety/depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

Sources:

The above-mentioned tips have been summarised from the following articles:

Lyness, D. (2016, September). Helping your child deal with death. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html

Ehmke, R. (2020, November 11). Helping children deal with grief. https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-deal-grief/

Dowshen, S. (2018, June 15). When a pet dies. https://www.wakehealth.edu/KH/clinical/lic415/en/parents/pet-death_html

Brennan, J. ( 2019, May 21). Helping children say goodbye: 10 tips for dealing with pet loss. https://medium.com/swlh/helping-children-say-goodbye-10-tips-for-dealing-with-pet-loss-3d1a04522d29