Here’s what you need to know about how to help children grieve when they’ve experienced to loss—from a grief counselor.
“Mommy, I want to arrest God for taking Daddy!” Words like this are expressed by children daily. Every year roughly 2.3 million people die in the United States; 16,000 are children. Even more children are touched by the loss of significant loved ones in their lives—parents, grandparents, teachers, even friends.
The harsh reality is that, sooner or later, you’ll have to deal with children and grief. The statistics don’t play favorites. Generally, I’ve found that children can be overlooked in the course of bereavement. Usually, it’s unintentional; the adults may just be caught up in their own grieving process. However, if adults are supportive of children during this time, the children will usually experience a healthy grieving process. I’ve worked as a grief counselor for over eight years. During that time, I’ve discovered helpful tips for working with grieving children.
Depending on where children are developmentally, they’ll experience grief differently. It’s almost as if they’re wearing different “grieving lenses.” For example, preschool children realize the loss of the loved one in the sense that the loved one has gone away and isn’t coming back. They’re also influenced by the adult’s explanation of what happened.
Sometimes preschoolers view death as magic, hoping that one day the person will reappear. On the other hand, a young school-age child knows that death is permanent and fears it. An older school-age child who experiences the death of a loved one will acknowledge the importance of it and will look for ways to deal with the grief constructively or destructively.
Talking About Death
As much as parents want to protect children from feeling pain, it’s worse to encourage them to have a magical idea about death. This can be more harmful to them in years to come.
In some instances, you may know that someone close to the children will soon die. This gives you time to prepare the children. You may also want them to participate in the “deathing” process by offering comfort and support to the loved one. The first step is to tell the children about the illness and the potential outcome. Ideally, the children’s parent(s) should tell them in a familiar, comfortable setting.
Preparing for Death
It’s a good idea to hold children while you talk with them about the imminent death. One woman told her children that she had cancer. She explained that for a while the children might see her get very sick. Although the doctors would try to make her better, no one knew what would happen. She might have to sleep a lot, but that wouldn’t mean that she didn’t still love her children. Sometimes, it’s helpful to explain the treatment and invent ways for children to be part of the process. In one case, a child’s role was to bring his grandfather ice cubes. In that way, the child was able to comfort his grandfather. Don’t use colorful words such as passing away, sleeping, or going on a trip. These words may cause the child to be fearful and anxious about these activities in the future.
Breaking the News
The surviving parent or parents should find a comfortable place to talk to the children. While holding them, tell them that the person has died. Parents commonly ask, “When someone dies in the middle of the night, should I wake my child?” My advice is to wait until they awaken to tell them. Typically, children react by crying. Then, they’ll usually want a diversion, such as going outside to play. Sometime later, they’ll probably cry again. Provide answers to their questions with comfort, support, and touch.
Children may ask a variety of questions. Gentle honesty is critical. I’ve provided the more commonly asked questions and the answers I typically give.
Q: Was she in pain when she died?
A: She had special medicine, so she didn’t feel any pain.
Q: Why couldn’t I and/or the doctors help her get better?
A: Her body wasn’t working and couldn’t be fixed.
Q: Why did she die?
A: She got sick, and they couldn’t fix her body any more.
Q: Where is she now?
A: Where do you think she is? (The child will usually answer heaven. Have the child elaborate on heaven.)
Q: What’s she doing and what does she look like?
A: No one really knows for sure, but she probably looks like your memory of her before her illness.
Children may exhibit other behaviors as a natural part of the grieving process. Children may want to stay connected with the deceased person by keeping a memento. For example, one young child kept her mother’s pillow. Children also may want to remember their loved one by looking at pictures and home videos. They may want to visit the cemetery or the place where the person died. Additionally, they may want to act like a ghost because it fits their perception of what the deceased person is experiencing now.
Wakes and Funerals
During the first few days following the death of a loved one, children tend to feel isolated. Their world has been interrupted, their normal routine disturbed. At this point, children, like adults, need to grieve. Attending a wake and/or funeral is a significant step in the grieving process. While you can’t and shouldn’t force children to attend a wake or funeral, encourage them to go. If children know what to expect at the funeral home and at the funeral service, the experience won’t seem as frightening. Smaller children can be cared for by a trusted adult, such as you, particularly if the parents are directly involved with the wake or funeral.
You can “keep an eye” on the children as well as offer love and support. Some funeral homes have a playroom for children. If not, create a space where the children can play quietly. Bring some of the children’s favorite playthings. Typically, children want to stay at the funeral home only for a short time, so arrange for someone to take them home early. With older children, invite their “circle of friends” to attend. It’s especially comforting to have their best friend with them during this time. At times, children may ask to participate in the family’s funeral planning. Include children in these activities. There are many ways they can participate, such as enclosing a treasured memento, a personal drawing, or a letter in the casket. Older children may want to read at a funeral or even offer a few words of their own.
This is probably the most difficult part of helping children grieve. After the funeral is over and adults return to their normal routine, children are still grieving. In fact, it usually takes about four years for children—and adults—to fully work through the grieving process. In the death of a parent, grandparent, or sibling, the normal routine is now uneven and may be completely different. The children may not feel comfortable expressing feelings to the remaining parent, grandparent, or other siblings because each is grieving in his or her own way. This is where you can play an important role in the healing process.
Provide the grieving children with a safe place to express all the diverse emotions they’re experiencing. Of course, as in all emotional traumas, extended and obsessive bouts of anger or depression need exploration by a professional counselor. You can find professional support from family therapists who specialize in grief counseling, hospice services that offer grieving support groups, or counseling centers that have programs for grieving children. Through the years, many children have shared their grieving experiences and stories with me. Regardless of their background, kids share one consistent message—their loved ones are now in a place where pain, sadness, and suffering are gone, and only happiness and goodness remain. And as I remember my significant loved ones who’ve died, I find great comfort and hope in that message. Anthony M. Sirianni is a priest and hospital chaplain in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Grieving children may express anger, fear, frustration, sadness, and other feelings. To help children express their emotions, use children’s playthings, such as crayons, paint, music, puppets, and clay. I’ve had children draw a series of pictures about themselves and the deceased person. In this example, the pictures are about a deceased friend, but these instructions can be used for any deceased loved one.
“Draw a picture of you and your friend before your friend died.”
“Draw a picture of where your friend is now.”
“Thinking about where your friend is now, draw a picture of yourself.”
As the children are drawing, watch their expressions and actions. For example, do they seem tense? Are they angry? Are they crying? Then observe the pictures. Are the pictures of sad faces? Do the colors seem to represent anger? After this activity, encourage children to present their drawings to the family of the deceased person. The children usually seem happy to make this comforting connection with the family. If children are angry, use these tips to help them deal with their anger:
Give kids a physical outlet such as sports. Be with them as they experience their anger. Don’t excuse bad behavior. Say, “I understand you’re angry because your father died; I’m angry too, but your behavior has to change. Let’s talk about what’s really bothering you.” Encourage children to talk about the person. If the situation id more than you can handle, seek professional help—perhaps for the entire family.
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