Grieving is a natural response when someone you loved has died.
It is such a tricky and challenging process to navigate and it will be a different journey for everyone.
Children, in particular, will grieve their own way.
But because children and even teenagers understand death differently than adults do, often times their responses to death may be different and even confusing.
It is important to remember that while you yourself may be grieving, so is your child, no matter what age they are!
By acknowledging and supporting your child in their grief, it will help the whole family begin to cope and heal.
Some Common (and sometimes confusing) Responses Children Have to Death:
Drawing or playing out scenarios about death:
If your child is drawing out scenes of the death or what they imagined occurred, or similarly, if they are playing doctor or ambulance imaginative play, this may be your child’s way of processing and comprehending what happened.
Reluctance to talk about the person who died or the death:
Often times children will see how talking about the person who died may make their parent or person talking with them upset. They may also notice that others will be uncomfortable talking about the death. Children are perceptive!
If you feel comfortable talking about it and showing your emotions, this will help your children feel open to talking as well.
Anger or acting out:
Your child is angry that someone they loved is no longer physically present in their lives, and rightfully so!
They may show this anger in a number of ways and it is important to encourage a positive expression of anger.
It is also important, however, to maintain positive limits: reminding children it is not ok to hit or hurt others or themselves even though they may be angry.
Focusing on Themselves:
It is possible that your child is not ready to process their feelings, but more likely they are developmentally responding in a way that is very appropriate.
Something very big has changed in their life and naturally children may wonder what this means for them and how their life will be impacted.
Asking questions about how this will affect them is a way for them to process how their needs will be met.
Similar to focusing on themselves, children and teens may also seem unaffected by the death at times and be almost “acting normal.”
At occasions such as a funeral or even if a parent or adult is trying to talk to a child about the death, it may be too overwhelming to focus on the feelings and naturally a child may change the topic or even ask to go play because they are letting you know the emotions feel too heavy for them in that moment.
They are looking for a sense of “normalcy” that they may have lost when their loved one died.
As an example, perhaps a child that has already been toilet trained may again have accidents.
Children may become more clingy or dependent when they were more independent before the death.
Your child may be regressing to a state that felt more comfortable to them when their person was alive and they are again looking to have their needs be met.
Adults have these too and they can be so confusing when they occur!
Your child may be having a great day and having fun and like the flip of a switch their emotions may change to intense anger or sadness.
This is quite literally a “burst” of emotions that can occur because something has triggered their grief.
It may seem random to you or an outsider, but after this wave of emotion has passed, more often than not you can identify a trigger. Perhaps a song came on the radio that reminded them of their person and triggered the feeling, or they smelled a perfume that reminded them.
Usually grief bursts are brought on by sensory experiences.
How to talk about death with your child and help them process their grief:
In order for your child to be able to begin processing their grief, it is important to first help them understand the death and the nature of grief.
Although it may seem scary to talk with your kids about death, most children are very resilient and respond best when they have this conversation with a trusted adult.
Be sure to use age appropriate, clear, simple and direct answers and statements about what occurred and what death means.
For example, if someone died of a heart attack, to a young child you may explain it by saying, “he/she died because his heart stopped working.” Try to avoid confusing language such as “we lost him/her” or “he/she went to sleep and isn’t going to wake up.”
For a young child, this suggests that, similar to a lost toy, you could just go and find him/her. This could also lead to questions about why he or she won’t wake up and if this may happen to them (the child themselves) if they go to sleep.
Even if the death was traumatic, children need an age appropriate understanding of the truth. These can be delicate conversations that you may need support from a professional in order to figure out the language and how best to approach the conversation.
Ways to Help Kids Cope:
• If it was a primary caregiver or important person in the child’s life that died, involve them (even if they are young) in part of the planning process if there is a memorial service. This can be as simple as having them choose a song they want to include or choosing a picture to display.
• Encourage them to use creative outlets such as drawing, singing or dancing their feelings.
• Make memory books about the person and include photos, drawings, quotes and/or phrases the person used to say or like.
• Talk about the person who died and know that it is ok to show your own grief and feelings to your children.
• Read books about grief with your children to help them understand what to expect and what grief is.
• Seek counseling services to assist your child in the grieving process.
Although grief is a universal experience, it is very individual and every grief path (just like every child) is so different.
The single biggest and best thing you can do to support your child through their grief is to acknowledge that it exists!
Don’t avoid it or suspect that it isn’t there if they are young or acting as if they don’t care.
You know your children best and if you feel like your child isn’t grieving in a healthy way then it is a good idea to consult with a therapist and seek some additional support.
**Written by Chelsea Derossi, M.A., MFT, ATR, therapist on staff at One Heart Counseling Center**