The loss of a loved one is a difficult experience no matter how old you are. Children, in particular, face a unique set of challenges when coping with grief.
The reality is, kids grieve differently than adults. They may show little or no emotion when they first learn about the death, only to suddenly have lots of questions at a later time. They may quickly go from crying one moment to playing the next.
How your child handles a loss depends on things like their age, prior experience with death and their relationship with the deceased. Helping children with grief begins with letting them know you’re there whenever they’re ready to talk, even if they need to wait a while.
Infants & Young Children
Infants and toddlers under 2 years old don’t yet understand the concept of death, so they won’t be fully aware of what is going on. However, they will notice the sudden absence of a parent or other familiar caregiver who has passed away. They may also sense a change in emotional tone from caregivers who are mourning the loss of a close friend or relative. As a result, your child may become more fussy and irritable than usual.
Between ages 2 and 5, children are just starting to learn about death but won’t fully understand it. They may confuse death with sleep, and you may find them asking the same questions over and over. Younger kids don’t yet have the vocabulary to fully express of their emotions, and they may seek reassurance that others close to them aren’t going to die. They may become more “clingy” and exhibit regressive behaviors such as bedwetting, even if they are already potty trained.
Children this age engage in “magical” thinking and often think death is reversible. This perception may be influenced by watching cartoons in which characters come back to life after getting killed. As difficult as it may be, parents do need to explain that death is permanent and that the deceased person isn’t coming back.
The concept of cause and effect is also not fully developed in early childhood. This often leads younger kids to feel guilty, thinking they must have done something wrong to cause the death. Gently reassure your child that it isn’t their fault.
It’s also common for young kids to feel angry at times. They may express anger toward the deceased person or surviving family members for not preventing the death. Don’t be alarmed if your child expresses feelings like this. Let them know that losing someone we love is hard, and it’s okay to feel sad or angry sometimes.
By around the age of 5, most children understand that death is permanent, but they may still have other questions. They may ask philosophical or religious questions about what happens after we die. They may also worry that other loved ones will pass away soon.
Although older kids have a larger vocabulary, they may still feel uncomfortable talking about their emotions in difficult situations. They may attempt to hide their sadness and become more withdrawn. Other children may get angry and exhibit more aggressive behavior, especially if they feel helpless. Following the death of a loved one, some children may have trouble sleeping or concentrating at school.
As with younger children, reassure older kids that it’s okay to be upset about the death. Don’t force them to talk if they don’t feel like it, but do let them know you’re there to listen at any time. Notify your child’s teachers and other school officials, and ask about ways to help your child stay up-to-date with academic work.
In addition to immediate feelings of anger, guilt and sadness, adolescents may be concerned about the long-term impact of the loss. If a parent has died, they may worry about how their daily routine will change or their financial future.
Teens may struggle with self esteem, questioning why the death had to happen and whether they personally did enough to help the deceased. Some may fear that a similar illness, accident or other cause of death will happen to them.
You may notice your teen becoming more distant, keeping to themselves or preferring to talk with peers instead of adults. Some teens may regress and become more childlike, while others may feel pressure to take on adult responsibilities once performed by the deceased. Teenagers who are struggling emotionally may get into fights or engage in risky behaviors, such as alcohol or drug use. A student who had been making good grades may suddenly begin to struggle at school.
Remind your teen that it’s okay to feel sad or angry, but it’s never okay to hurt others or engage in dangerous activities. Suggest constructive ways to deal with the loss. Examples include talking to a trusted adult, getting some exercise or expressing one’s emotions through creative writing or art.
Other Ways Adults Can Help
Children’s shock and confusion over death often comes when other family members are grieving and less attentive to the child’s needs. As a parent, don’t ignore your own grief, but do be aware that your child is watching you. Kids often mimic the behaviors of trusted grown-ups when they aren’t sure what to do.
Keep in mind that there’s no “correct” way to grieve. Don’t rush your child through the mourning process or tell them to “get over it” before they’re ready. Be there to listen and help. Only intervene if your child engages in behavior that is dangerous, aggressive or unkind toward others.
Let your child decide whether to attend the funeral or memorial service. If they’d like to go, help them prepare by telling them what to expect. Will there be a casket? Will the casket be open? What music will be playing? Will there be a graveside service? If your child doesn’t attend, make arrangements for them to stay with a trusted adult.
In some cases you may notice more troubling signs of depression, such as loss of interest in favorite activities, difficulty sleeping or loss of appetite. Your child may become withdrawn from family and friends or suddenly have difficulty at school. If this is the case, talk to your child’s pediatrician or a qualified counselor. Look for community-based services or support groups that help grieving children.
At Crown Hospice, we understand how hard it is to lose a loved one. Our bereavement services offer emotional support, including free grief counseling and access to community support groups.
If you’re struggling to help your child cope with the loss of a family member or friend, reach out to us. We look forward to helping you and your family on your path to healing.