How to Help a Grieving Child


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Introduction
At Fernside, we listen. The suggestions in this section come from what many children and their families have told us. This information applies to all children. Caring adults should adapt our suggestions to fit the age and maturity of the individual child. A special section about teenagers adds insight for that age group.

The most important message is - You can't fix grief. Caring adults who try to fix or solve a child's grief will be frustrated. Their good intentions will not work. Instead, caring adults need to honor and support the child's grief.

Death is an event that leaves a permanent hole in a child's life. It cannot be fixed. Allow the child to grieve. Be available for the child. Listen. Do not set a time limit on grief. Encourage them to share. Help them find their own words.

The Facts of Death
Inform the child as soon as possible. The child should hear the truth from someone close to her, not from outsiders. Waiting for the "right time" causes confusion and resentment, and it damages trust. Children need to know what happened to the body. Some want more details than others do. But they all deserve a factual explanation of what happened. Explain clearly, simply, and honestly what caused the death. Do not lie. Avoid euphemisms.

Do not say:

  • "God needed an angel."
  • "She went on a trip and can't come back."
  • "He went to sleep and won't wake up."
Say:
  • "Her body stopped working and could not be fixed. She couldn't breathe or eat anymore."
  • "He was very, very sick for a long time, and there was no medicine that could help."
  • "She died."
Explain that the death was not the child's fault. Children commonly believe that something they did, said, or thought might have caused the death. If this is the case, assure the child that he did the best he could.

Be prepared to repeat what happened, over and over again. This is especially important for a very young child. Be patient. If the child was present, it is often helpful for the child to go over what happened.

Spiritual Beliefs
If the child's family has a spiritual belief about life after death, talk about this belief with the child. Share with the child if the religion includes survival of the spirit or afterlife. You may prefer to talk about a caring and comforting God, instead of describing death as God's doing.

Knowing what a family believes may help a child feel better about what happened to their loved one's spirit. It is not a substitute for explaining what happened to the body. (See previous section, "The Facts of Death.")

The most important thing is to be honest. Admit if you don't know all the answers

Memorial Ceremonies
No matter what rites are used to remember a loved one, they are likely to be new and mysterious for a child. Include the child in the preparations - receiving friends at home, visitation, wake, funeral, memorial service, cremation or trip to the cemetery.

Describe beforehand what will happen in clear and simple terms. Tell the child what he will see and hear. Explain the purpose of each ritual.

Ask the child to help:

  • Arrange flowers or help with the food
  • Choose a favorite song or story for the service
  • Write a note to go inside the casket
  • Take a special gift or flower to the service
  • Invite friends and teachers
  • Create a collage of photos
Encourage your child to attend the services. Taking part in even some of the rituals helps the child to understand and feel less alone.

If the child is reluctant to attend, gently mention that she may later regret missing out on this important day. Remind him that a close relative or adult friend will be nearby the whole time. Do not, however, force the child to do anything against his will. Try to have the child attend at least one small part. Allow for a last-minute change of mind.

Feelings
Grief is a normal reaction to losing someone who was loved or important. Each individual mourns in a different way. Some children grieve openly from the start; others show no sign for months. There is no right or wrong way. Avoid judgment words.

Do not say:

  • "Stop crying all the time."
  • "It's been long enough. You should be over it by now."
  • "You should be crying. You should be showing you are sad."
Express your own feelings. Your displays of emotion give the child permission to be open and honest with her feelings.

Say:

  • "I am so angry."
  • "I am so sad."
  • "I can see that you are sad."
Tell the child that it's normal to feel angry, guilty, frustrated and scared.

Model safe ways to express feelings, like:

  • Punch a pillow
  • Scream really loud
  • Keep a journal
  • Tear up old newspapers
If your child wants to stay physically close:
  • Hold the child close if he/she desires
  • Sit next to each other when possible
  • Cry together
  • Allow the child to sleep with or near you
  • Talk about the loved one
If the child prefers to be alone, that's okay, but check in on him/her.

Talking and Listening
Encourage communication, but don't force it. Listen carefully. Acknowledge and validate the child's feelings. Take seriously what the child is saying. Address concerns as they come up.

A child might be worried about:

  • "Who would take care of me if you died?"
  • "Will Susie die when she goes to the hospital to get her tonsils out?"
If the child finds talking difficult:
  • Talk about your own feelings
  • Use memories and stories to help the child find words
  • Play a sport or game together
  • Draw a picture of your family together
  • Read a book or watch a video together (Ask Fernside, library, or store for suggestions.)
  • Take a walk or a car ride where you can be alone together, but not face-to-face
  • Arrange for an adult, who is not the parent, to be around and listen
  • Seek the help of a support group or professional counseling
Say:
  • "I can see you're feeling sad today. I'm sad too."
  • "Remember when your sister used to sing that silly song?"
  • "Let's look together at the scrapbook about Daddy."
  • "Your mom loved the way you played soccer."
Helpful Activities
Often a child may feel very helpless after a death in the family. Anything that instills confidence is good. A new skill can help a child regain self-esteem. It can renew a sense of personal strength and control. Also, nonverbal expression, through arts or sports, might be an easier way for some children to cope.
  • Offer music or art lessons
  • Find a class in karate, wrestling, chess or ceramics
  • Supply materials for arts and crafts projects
  • Make or give the child hand puppets
  • Provide a blank notebook as a journal or sketchpad
  • Find a charity to give to or work for in memory of the one who died
Changes in Behavior
It takes a long time to adjust to the loss of a loved one. A temporary stage of acting out or temper tantrums will often pass. Try to suspend judgment as long as the child is not hurting herself or another person.

Love each other and share hugs often. Express affection in a way your family finds most comfortable.

A child may change his appearance drastically or develop a very different attitude. It is possible that he might not return to being the exact same child he was before. Sometimes a grieving child will change his crowd of friends. Actively check into new friends and situations in a positive and interested way.

People who have experienced a death undergo tremendous personal change. Allow the new self to emerge slowly. Give the child support and help. Change is difficult in any circumstance.

Daily Life
Try to spend more time with each child individually. Also spend time as a family.

  • Review the day together before bedtime
  • Set up a weekly family gathering time
  • Eat some of your meals together. Find another spot in the house to gather for a meal, if being around the dining room table is difficult.
Try to maintain some of the normal routines. Allow children to choose what they will do to help around the house. Relax your standards of cleanliness a little, at least temporarily. Talk to other caring adults (like teachers) about relaxing their expectations, too.

Be realistic about how much any of you want to do. Everyone may appreciate a temporary scaling back from a full schedule. Allow your friends to help.

If possible, put off big changes, preferably for a year. When it is time for a change, include the child. Ask the child what she would like. Give her an opportunity to express opinions and contribute to decisions.

  • "I'm thinking about moving. Would you like to stay in the same neighborhood or explore a new area?"
  • "Who should have the empty room?"
  • "What toys or books or clothing of Becky's would you like to have or keep?"
At School
School can be a source of additional stress. Don't push the child to return to school immediately after the death. Work closely with the child, teachers and school staff. Help create an understanding environment.

Set up ways to help the child deal with:

  • Trouble concentrating on schoolwork
  • Problems with classmates
  • Days when she feels especially sad or vulnerable
Also available from Fernside is the brochure, How to Help a Grieving Child in the Classroom.

Teenagers
The suggestions in this section are general, to fit a wide range of ages. Individuals vary, and so do their responses.

Teenagers can sometimes get caught in the middle. They understand more than younger children do. But the pain, fear and feelings of abandonment are just as strong and raw. Since they look like adults, people may make the mistake of thinking that teens have adult ways to cope. A quiet teenager, as well as a talkative one, might give the impression that they are doing better than they really are. Sometimes significant adults mistakenly keep a low profile.

Older children may try to:

  • Protect a parent or avoid hurting a parent
  • Feel they need to take the place of the person who died
  • Conceal feelings or actions they may be too ashamed to admit
The emotional turmoil of adolescence can add to the confusion. Whether the death was recent or awhile ago - when a child enters puberty, the loss will be keenly felt.

What to Expect in the Future
Grieving is a process that takes a very long time. The child will never stop missing the absent loved one. The pain will slowly, gradually, decrease IF the child is allowed to grieve and express feelings.

Daily life contains many hidden pitfalls for children who have experienced a death. New friends ask how many siblings are in the family. Other kids complain about their parents. A girl's first period without her mother around. A father and son camp-out. Birthdays. the death anniversary date, holidays.

Children deal with bits and pieces of reality as they mature. Grief may seem to resurface years later. The child might withdraw, mope around, act out, be on edge or cry. Be sensitive to what may have triggered this. Talk about it, if they want. Express your love.

Reminders
It's important to keep in mind that:

  • There is no time limit on grief
  • Each child is unique, including siblings
  • Each child has different concerns, questions, feelings and grief styles
  • Children grieve sporadically. Understand there will be times when children focus on the death by asking many questions or crying. Other times they seem unaffected.
  • Children reprocess their grief as they move through developmental stages.
  • Holidays, birthdays and milestones (graduations, mitzvahs, weddings, etc.) are events that can intensify grief.
There are also additional influencing factors that can affect the grief process in children. Some of these are the cause of death, the relationship with the person who died and the history of losses within the family. It's important to consider how these affect grieving children.