Guidelines for Helping Children Cope with Grief & Loss
Has your child suffered the loss of a beloved relative? Has the loss of a pet filled him with sadness? Is a young person that you know living through the unspeakable tragedy of losing a parent to disease, accident, or unexpected death?
Understanding death and coping with loss are two of the most painful challenges a child is likely to face in his life. Studies show that unresolved grief contributes to lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicidal behavior. Though death is a part of life and children cannot always be shielded from its emotional toll, there are things parents and caregivers can do to help children cope with grief and loss.
Before your child ever experiences first-hand the loss of a loved one, teach him about death by talking about it in the context of the circle of life. Children as young as one-year old have an awareness that parts of their world, like plants, flowers, and animals, have a life cycle. When children ask questions about birth, growth, life, deterioration, and death, the answers that parents provide—and the comfort with which parents speak—sets the tone for how children feel about these subjects.
Whether because of their own grief or due to a desire to shield children from pain, many adults are reluctant to talk to kids about death. In reality, children need adults to face the subject of death head-on, to provide essential information and much-needed emotional support. It is crucial that adults are honest with children about the death of a pet or the loss of a relative and provide compassionate age-appropriate information as soon as possible following the death. There are no “magic words” that can soften the blow of death, but there are a few guidelines that can help:
1.Use the word “death” and “died.” Euphemisms like “passed away” and “departed” are confusing to children and interfere with their understanding of death. Likewise, don’t use words like “sleeping” that often cause children to fear going to bed at night.
2.Teach children that death is permanent and irreversible. It is important that children know definitively that their goldfish will not re-appear in his bowl tomorrow (a confusion often borne from well-intentioned parents trying to hide death from children) and that he will not see Grandma again. When kids understand that death is final, they are better able to begin the process of grieving.
3.Use care when talking to children about God’s role in death. While talking about Heaven can give children a healthy sense of peace, it is important not to say things like, “Mommy went to live with God,” lest a child feel abandoned by his parent or considers self-harm as a way to join his lost loved one.
Normal Grief Reactions:
Grief is a highly individual process and no two children experience loss in exactly the same way. If you are helping a child cope with grief over the death of a loved one, however, keep in mind these common grief reactions:
•Sadness & Tears
•Disbelief & Denial
•Anxiety, often felt physically (stomachaches, headaches)
•Anger (at the person for dying, at someone for not telling them sooner, at God)
A child may experience some or all of these common grief reactions, for up to three years following the death. His emotions may intensify at certain times and abate at others. For children whose reactions seem extreme and interfere with their ability to resume daily activities after a one month period, it is wise to seek professional help with a qualified mental health professional.
This article was originally posted on ParentsAreImportant.