If your children are old enough to love, then they are old enough to grieve. After the death of a family member or friend, children and teens need to know what to expect and how to deal with any troubling thoughts and feelings that may surface. It is important for you to be as open as possible with whatever emotions and questions come up.
As a parent, you may be faced with the challenges of coping with your own grief at the same time your children will need support with theirs. There may be times when you find it hard to listen to their anger or sadness because it brings out your own deep emotions. Try to remember that your children are learning from you, and may benefit from being included in your grieving process.
Within families, everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. This can present challenges and may require extra patience, understanding and compromise. Just like adults, children and teens have a ‘grieving style’, which may lean towards a task-oriented or an emotion-oriented approach. Neither one is the right way to grieve; and most people’s grieving style is a combination of both.
Children and teens who are more task-oriented may need to return to old routines or may focus on activities, such as artwork, play or sports. They may benefit from opportunities to remember the person who has died in concrete ways, such as creating a memory book or special object.
Children and teens who are more emotion-oriented tend to talk more about their feelings. Feelings such as sorrow, anger or fear can sometimes explode in loud or ‘big’ outbursts. It is important that there are opportunities for children to share these feelings and to receive comfort and support from you. If you feel unable to provide this, is there another adult who may be able to do so? This could be a family member, friend, volunteer or counsellor.
The information in this section is offered only as a guideline to help you anticipate and understand the changing needs of your children and teens after a death. They will grieve in ways that reflect their individual personality, developmental understanding, previous experience with loss, and the support and information available to them. Because your child’s understanding and needs may not fit within his or her particular age group, you may find it helpful to read information for children who are either older or younger than your own.
1 Adapted from Terry L. Martin & Kenneth J. Doka. Men Don’t Cry…Women Do –
Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief.
For the complete booklet titled Children & Teen Grief – Information for parents and caregivers – use this link. This is a 32 page booklet provided by Victoria Hospice covering the following topics:
- Supporting Children and Teens through Grief
- The Grief Journey
- Children Aged 3 to 5
- Children Aged 6 to 8
- Children Aged 9 to 11
- Young Adolescents Aged 12 to 14
- Older Adolescents Aged 15 to 17
Children and Grief…
|They don’t understand what has happened; they’re too young.||Even the very young know when those around them are upset. Most understand more than adults realize.|
|Going to the funeral would just upset them.||Not being included in the family rituals could upset them more. It helps to see how adults grieve.|
|I must protect them from loss and pain.||All children do experience losses and need to learn how to deal
|Children don’t feel grief the same as adults.||Everyone grieves in his own way, depending on circumstances,
developmental level and life experiences. This is normal and
|When they have grieved once it should be over.||Let that be their choice, not yours. That’s often all they do want
to talk about.
|I might upset them.||They’re already upset; this is a natural part of grieving.|
|They need to be kept busy.||Routine activities are important, but new activities may be
|Getting rid of reminders helps; encourage only good memories.||This can suggest that it’s wrong to think about the person who
died or to have bad memories.
|I won’t mention the death unless they do.||This can suggest that it’s bad to mention the person; the child
can perceive that there’s something bad about them or the
person’s death and/or that you don’t care.
|Once they’ve been angry or guilty that should be the end of it.||Grief is a ‘process’, not steps so the same feelings will surface
repeatedly, as each aspect of the loss is realized.
|It’s morbid to want to touch or talk about the body.||This is normal for children. It’s a good way to say goodbye and
make the death real.
|If they aren’t expressing grief, children aren’t grieving.||They may not know how to express feelings or know if they have
permission to grieve. They may delay their grief to avoid
|I should tell them all the facts immediately.||They may not be able to understand everything, or be able to
handle the intensity of the situation. They will set the pace if
It is important to pay attention to childrens grief because…
- They can experience higher levels of depression in adulthood.
- Secure attachment may be affected and insecurely attached children are at greater risk of continuing to form poor attachments to others and have low self esteem.
- Children who have been able to grief tend to be promoters of resilience.
Grieving children and youth…
- Have an innate desire to be included in events
- Move from concrete to abstract
- Continue to grieve at each developmental level
- Communicate through behaviours
- Have their own answers
What does grief look like for children and youth…
- There is a need for breaks
- Changes in behaviour
- Expression of big and small emotions
- Difficult questions
What do grieving children and youth need…
- To know that they will be cared for
- To know they didn’t cause the death
- To have clear information about death
- To feel important and involved
- Continued routine activities
- Someone who will listen to their fear, fantasies and questions
- Ways to remember the dead person
- Adults who model grief behaviour
How do we know that a child or youth is struggling?
- Regression to previous behaviours
- Acting out
- Difficulty with sleep
- Problems with friends
- Withdrawal from usual activities
- Mistaken beliefs (“I caused the death”)
Information provided by Victoria Hospice Society
How to Prepare a Child for Death
- Tell the children as soon as possible. Explain what has happened in words that are appropriate to the children’s age. Remember children are very literal. Discuss death as a biological process (the body stops working, the heart no longer beats, the lungs don’t breathe). Death is final and not reversible.
- Use examples that children can understand from nature or their everyday life; such as a school building without children or trees without leaves.
- Ask the children how they think about death.
- Answer the children’s questions as honestly as possible.
- Assure the children that they could never cause the death.
- If possible, take the children to a cemetery and funeral home before a death occurs. Discuss these events and their feelings.
- Cry together. It is beneficial for children to see their parent cry. Their tears validate the emotions being felt. It also gives the children permission to cry too.
- If your children don not talk about the death, do not assume the children are handling it ‘just fine’. It is in the talking out of feelings, that the healing occurs and acceptance happens.
- Emphasize that people who are loved and cared about are kept in our memories. Encourage ideas on how this can be done.
- Ask then to share their feelings, fears and questions with you. Listen and affirm.
- Never say you will never die because someday you will. Assure them that you hope it will be a long time before this happens. Talk about death as the final stage of life. If you are comfortable with death, your child will be too.
- Cuddle, hug, love and be patient with family members. Allow yourselves the gift of time for healing.
- Encourage counselling and/or support groups for family members.
- Ask the children if they would like to participate in the planning and attending of the funeral arrangements. The wake is the social good-bye; the burial is the physical good bye. It isn’t what is done that is important but how it is done. All traditions are important ways of letting of a loved person. They are integral to the acceptance of death. Explain what happens during these events. Then let the children decide whether to participate.
Taken from “A single Parent Grief Guide” Suzy Yehl Marta, founder and president of RAINBOWS
Children grieve in spasms. They are not emotionally mature enough to deal with their grief everyday. So it will come and go. This does not diminish how deeply they feel.
Children have three, often unasked, questions when told of an impeding separation, divorce or death:
Did I cause this?
Even though you have initially stated to the children this event is not their fault, their guilt remains a nagging concern for a long time.
Who will keep me safe?
Children instinctively know they can’t take care of themselves. This is a fundamental anxiety of all children…even adolescents. While teens seemingly are pulling away from the family, they still want to know these is a protective haven to return to when life gets too frightening or a problem arises.
Is this going to happen to me too?
History repeating itself with the inherent pain that separation/divorce cause is a major concern. As parents, we can use our experience as a teaching tool.
Divorce/separation/death is survivable for our children if they are given support, encouragement and love. This experience can be used as a learning tool for other loss events throughout their life. Each painful situation children experience well, will better equip them to handle their next challenge.
Taken from “A Single-Parent Grief Guide” Suzy Yehl Marta Founder & President RAINBOWS
“We’ve come to understand that one of the most important influences on children’s ability to mourn in health ways are the actions of the adults around them.”
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.d.
Through the years minimal research has been done to discover the feelings of children and adolescents experience when death takes a loved one from them. The assumption was that there was no emotional impact on the young ones because they were unable to verbalize their feelings or cognitively understand the concept of death.
When a child reaches adolescence or young adulthood, again the response has been that since the teen “understands” it shouldn’t be too upsetting. In addition, often “support adults” will tell this adolescent to “be strong” for their parent. Consequently, the youth are left with no appropriate outlet for their intense feelings of grief.
Today, there is knowledge that grief (loss) has no relation to ‘understanding’ but rather is a feeling response. Consequently, if a child is able to love then this child can grieve as well. However, because a young child has no understanding of time or space, it is potentially more difficult.
The child’s capacity to cope with a death depends on many things;
- The relationship to the person who died
- The type of death
- Previous death experiences
- Family’s ability to communicate with one another
- Child’s developmental stage
- Socio-cultural and religious beliefs and factors
Alan Wolfelt PhD “If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve”
How Adults Can Help Grieving Children
The following guidelines are meant to be helpful and not intended to tell you what you “should” do. Everyone’s situation is unique, and when you are grieving you are doing the best you can. Thi summary comes from a variety of sources (listed below) as well as some embellishment from our experiences through the Grief Support Program for Children and Teens.
Seek support and education to understand your own grief process. Grief is the “price we pay for love” and there are a myriad of physical, emotional and spiritual, and psychological responses. Lack of attention to ourselves usually leads to projecting or placing our own thoughts, feelings, and needs onto our children.
Model healthy reactions to loss by expressing feelings and receiving support. How do children learn? We adults are important role models.
Acknowledge the reality that grief hurts! Don’t attempt to rescue the child or yourself from hurt. Grief work is a healing process and it is work.
At a time of loss children may feel frightened, insecure and helpless. They need additional love and support, but they also need structure in their daily routine. They need understanding and firm caring rules need not be abandoned. In fact, a routine provides a sense of continuity as well as a sense of security and stability, in what to the child may be, a pretty crazy world.
When children experience a death it is relatively common for them to think about it happening again, either to themselves or to someone else significant in their life. Especially in the case of one parent dying, they need to know who will take care of them if the other parent dies.
Children need age appropriate information. They need an explanation as to the cause of death using the words die and dead. Our impulse is to overprotect. However, using vague terms like going away, sleep, or associating sickness with death only adds to the confusion. Also honesty is the best policy. Do not tell a child something he or she will have to unlearn; not to mention the importance of trust in a relationship.
Listen to a child’s responses to your explanations as well as to the questions they ask. Ask them what they understood; ask for feedback about your approach, especially with older children, ask them what they need. It is important to listen and respect the child’s feelings and experiences.
Do not close the door to doubt, questioning and differences of opinion. People within the same family will be in “different places”.
Watch out for kids trying to protect grieving adults by assuming the caretaker role. Children can be quite supportive; however, children need to be children and grow up without adult responsibilities.
Children wil often need help in recognizing, naming, accepting, and expressing feelings. It is helpful to promote physical and creative activities for outlets. For example; kick boxing, tearing up paper, writing, painting, yelling, throwing dishes (preferably ones bought at a garage sale!).
Children can learn about death and grief prior to the actual deal of a loved one, eg. Death of a pet – how is this handled? Is the pain unbearable and the puppy replaced quickly? What does this teach the child about life and death?
Share personal and religious beliefs carefully. Children may fear or resent a God that takes to Heaven someone they love and need.
Realize that child’s grief may be difficult to recognize. Feelings may be expressed more in behaviour than in words. Helplessness, despair, fear, and anxiety may be acted out with aggressive behaviour. Sometimes anger is directed at the safest person, often a surviving parent. It may not be conscious or rational but the child may feel that the parent should have prevented this tragedy.
Anticipate and discuss expectable strains on relationships with family and peers. Individual family members, and the family as a whole, most often are establishing a new identity. The child may experience the discomfort of peers who are forced to confront the thought of death by their presence.
Reassure children, especially younger ones, that they are not responsible for the person’s death. All people die. Thoughts or words do not cause death.
Parents need to know that once death is explained, it is not a closed subject. The topic will surface at very “interesting” times. Plus grief lasts “longer than anyone expects”. Children continue to deal with grief as they grow and mature. Significant “rites of passage”, eg puberty, can be triggers for emotional reactions.
It is a good idea to establish lines of communication with everyone involved with the child. Keep each other informed eg., grief usually causes difficulty concentrating. School work may be affected. The balance between understanding the affects of grief and setting realistic expectations can be discussed.
Recognize the importance of rituals. Rituals allow you to channel your feelings and thoughts into an activity. They can make your feelings more manageable. It is often helpful to plan something at significant dates, eg holiday season, birthday etc. Rituals can take several forms and can be very individual or done as a family, eg. hanging a special ornament, lighting a candle, or setting aside a special time to remember.
- Marge Heegaard, When Someone Very Special Dies. Woodland Press 99 Woodland Circle, Minneapolis, MN 55424; 1988.
- Ben Wolfe, St. Mary’s Grief Support Centre, 407 East Third Street, Duluth, MN 55805.
- Darcie Sims, Big A and Company, PO Box 92032, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87199.
- Compiled by: Fred Nelson, Grief Support Program for Children and Teens, St. Boniface General Hospital, Department of Social Work, 409 Tache Ave. Winnipeg, MB R2H 2A6 204 237 2344.