When children lose a parent, a sibling, or any other significant person in their lives, it can be difficult to know just how to help them cope with the loss, especially when you are grieving as well. Explaining death in an age-appropriate way is very important in helping children understand loss, and remaining open and available to discuss their questions and feelings is key to healthy coping.
Explaining death to children
How much children understand about death depends mostly upon their age, but also on their life experiences. Young children are very literal and need death explained in concrete terms. Avoid the use of euphemisms such as telling kids that their parent "went to sleep," "went away" or that you "lost them." Phrases such as these can create a fear of going to sleep, separation anxiety when they are apart from their parent or guardian or general confusion about what actually happened to their loved one.
Young children also have trouble understanding what death means and may need to hear the explanations over and over. This can be difficult when you are grieving, but be patient and open, and allow your child to work through his or her grief as much as possible.
Children ages 6 to 10 begin to grasp the meaning of death but still need simple, honest explanations of what happened to their loved one and reassurance that nothing they did contributed to their death.
Teens begin to understand that everyone eventually dies regardless of actions or wishes. Kids in this age group continue to need honesty and an open line of communication to prevent their grief from being kept inside.
Ways that children may exhibit grief
Even the youngest children can exhibit signs of grief. Infants and toddlers may show changes in their eating and sleeping habits and may cry more frequently for what seems like no reason.
Preschoolers may continue to look for their parent for some time, believing that he or she will be coming back. Their behavioral patterns may change as well, and they may experience increased stomach upsets and headaches, more temper tantrums, sudden fears and regression in behaviors, such as resuming thumb sucking.
Younger school-aged children face the challenge of being questioned about their loved one's death by classmates, which can be difficult for many kids and can add to their worries and grief. This age group may also experience a change in behaviors, a decline in their school work, fighting with peers, stomach upsets and headaches. They may put on a brave face and even try to take on some of the roles of the deceased loved one.
Teenagers are already facing so many physical and emotional changes within themselves that grief can be especially difficult to deal with. They can easily feel isolated when their peers don't know what to say to them and shy away from them or shun them instead. Teens may try to protect their living parents by caring for them or by keeping their emotions to themselves so as not to add to their parents' worries. In extreme cases, this age group can become depressed and may turn to drugs, alcohol or sex as outlets.
Helping children cope with their grief
Though there are many specific things that you can do to help children deal with the loss of a loved one, the most important thing surviving adults can do is to be available as much as possible. Let them know that you are there to talk, listen or comfort whenever they need it and that their emotions and questions are welcomed. Be patient as they work through their grief and encourage their expressions. Below are some other actions and resources that may help your children express and cope with their grief.
Include them in the funeral. Offer your children the opportunity to attend or take part in the funeral if they wish. Explain to them what the ceremony will be like, about the casket and body, and that many people may be crying. Respect their decision regarding attendance once they make it.
Encourage artistic expression of emotions. Not all children will have an easy time talking about their feelings, so offer alternate ways for them to express themselves. Encourage them to draw, paint or write as other healthy ways to work through their grief and help them deal with their emotions.
Keep routines as normal as possible. Children thrive in a predictable environment, and at a time of high emotions and uncertainty, this can bring a great deal of comfort to your grieving child. Maintaining regular meal times, bed times, homework routines, etc. will keep a sense of normalcy in your child's life during this difficult time.
Seek out age-appropriate resources. There is a multitude of books, DVDs and tool kits available for grieving children and their parents. A full listing can be found in "The Days Ahead" binder provided by your service casualty assistance officer, but the few below offer a place to start:
- "Guiding Your Child Through Grief," by Mary Ann Emswiler and James P. Emswiler
- "Thirty-five Ways to Help a Grieving Child," by Dougy Center Staff
- "Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies," by Janis Silverman
- "The Hero in My Pocket," by Marlene Lee
- "Sad Isn't Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss," by Michaelene Mundy
- "Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss," by Pat Schwiebert, RN and Chuck Deklyen
- Sesame Street Workshop "When Families Grieve." "When Families Grieve" is part of an outreach kit, developed by Sesame Workshop, to help families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Watch the video online or order the DVD at no cost from Military OneSource by going online or calling 800-342-9647.
- The Trevor Romain Comfort Kit for Kids. This kit is centered on the Parents' Choice Gold Award-winning DVD, "What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies?" The kit includes a journal, a book, a memory box and more. These kits are available at no cost through Military OneSource by going online or calling 800-342-9647.
Consider a camp for children who have lost a loved one. Programs like Comfort Zone Camp and the Tragedy Assistance Program's Good Grief Camp can help connect children with others who understand loss. Camps such as these create a safe environment where children can feel understood and accepted and learn healthy ways to grieve and honor their deceased loved one.
Watch for signs that your child may need further support. If you feel that any of your child's signs of grieving are too severe, seek assistance from any of the organizations listed below. Children may open up to someone outside of the family more readily than they will a surviving family member, for fear of adding more burden to an already grieving loved one.
- Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA offers grief counseling at vet centers across the country at no cost to surviving family members. Visit the Department of Veterans Affairs website for locations near you.
- Military OneSource. Military OneSource offers adult, child and family counseling sessions in a face-to-face setting, via telephone and online.
As you move through your own grief and help your children through theirs, remember that the best thing you can do is to be available to them. Keeping communication open and being in tune with their day-to-day actions will help you guide them through this difficult time in the healthiest way possible.