How to Help a Child with Grief
Be Honest About the Event
No one likes to cause children pain, so it can be tempting to sugarcoat or talk around the death of a loved one, including a parent, relative, friend, or family pet.
Being honest, however, is important to walking through grief.
You want to avoid euphemisms like "went to sleep," as this can be deeply confusing for children. Instead, being direct and explaining that "they died, and it's very sad but they can't come back."
How exactly you discuss the passing and in what context depends on the child's maturity, age, and interest. It's important to answer their questions in an age-appropriate way, as it provides clarity and can help build trust between you and the child.
Acknowledge the Feelings of Grief
Some of us were raised in a culture that praised strength, encouraging the repression of feelings. This is the last thing that children need, because they'll be taking their lead from you. Like adults, children need to feel grief to properly work through it.
Be open about the death and your feelings about it. Encourage your children to do the same. This creates transparency, and a safe space for your children to feel what they're feeling without being embarrassed for feeling weak.
To facilitate this, you can:
- Allow the child to tell the story about what happened
- Encourage them to ask any questions they have, promising that you'll be honest
- Share your feelings, too, and let them know that you're sad
Reassure Them & Give Them What They Need
Being proactive about checking in with your child following a death is an important step, especially if your child isn't prone to coming to an adult about feelings.
Reassuring them at all points is essential, though this can take many different forms, including the following:
- Reminding them that they're loved, safe, and not going through this alone
- Stress that they did not cause the death, nor could they have prevented it
- Let them know that the person who died loved them, was sorry for leaving, and would want them to be happy in the long run
Don't be worried if your child wants time alone and doesn't seem to want to talk, but let them know that if they do have any questions or want to talk that you're there.
Patience is a Virtue
A death of someone the child loved can impact them greatly, especially if their day to day life is impacted.
A child who loses a parent, for example, not only lost one of the most important people in their lives; they also likely lost their daily routine, their sense of stability, and perhaps even time with their other parent if they need to pick up extra slack around the house or financially.
Be patient. Children can lash out while grieving, and being patient, empathetic, and supportive can help everyone involved during the mourning process.
Sometimes, the children will ask the same question over and over again. Even if these are painful – like "are you sure grandma won't come back?" — continue to answer them.
It's never easy, especially when you're grieving yourself, but it is an important part of helping a child with grief.
Give Them Something to Remember The Loved One
Sympathy gifts exist for a reason. They give the grieving something to hold onto and to symbolize the person they lost. This is meaningful for adults, but can mean the world to children.
There are two popular options:
- Something the child can hold onto and hug, like the Here to Hug bear.
- Something that the child can keep with them, like a memorial necklace or even a keychain, to feel like they still have part of their lost loved one with them
How Long is Too Long?
Grief is a natural process, and everyone moves at their own pace. There's no way to speed up the healing process, but it's normal for parents or guardians to wonder if there is such a thing as "taking too long" when it comes to recovering.
Grief in childhood can have long-lasting effects.
If symptoms are impairing daily life after the initial loss or persist beyond six months, professional help may be needed. Remember that it's never too early to seek a professional, even if it's immediately following a loss.
These are the signs to watch out for:
- Frequent nightmares
- Anxiety or depression, including a perception that the world is unsafe
- Heightened fear of losing someone else close to them
- New behavior problems like anger, mood swings, irritability, or reckless behavior
- Regressive behavior like thumb-sucking or clinging
- Withdrawal or detachment from other close relationships
- Suicidal thoughts
Grieving is difficult enough as an adult, it's no surprise that it can be challenging to navigate as a child. As you're mourning, remember that your child is mourning in their own way.
If you need help navigating it, reach out to friends, family, and professionals.
This in and of itself can be useful, as having a wide-reaching net of support for your child can also be helpful for everyone involved. Your child needs to remember that they're safe and loved, and the more people who can help with that, the better.
Looking for a sympathy gift to help a child with grief? See if Cubby the Comfort Bear is the right fit for you.