Grief is an incredibly natural and important emotion. When it comes to comforting adults through grief and loss, we have different ways of personalizing our words and techniques. However, regarding children, we struggle to find the right words. In essence, it really depends on the age of the child to determine how we approach death, grief, and loss.
Children develop at individual rates.
When they are younger than two years of age, while there is little understanding of the finality of death, children do still experience an emotional reaction to separation.
Under the age of five years, death isn’t known to be final. Children at this age exhibit more concrete thinking, magical thoughts, and by asking them to perceive death too emphatically, they may perceive it as a punishment/their fault.
From ages six to ten years, children begin to see death as not reversible and understand the finality of it. At this age, children begin to become afflicted by nightmares, ghosts, and may be afraid of the dark. Death can follow with those fears.
Adolescents and teens understand that death is irreversible, universal, and inevitable. When a moving event like death in a loved one occurs, at this age, our children may begin asking themselves more philosophical questions about life and death...such as why do bad things happen to good people? Or what tis the meaning of life? These are natural questions to ask and normal curious responses.
The best way to approach death or loss with our children is to talk about it but using language that matches their understanding developmentally. Be honest about what has happened, your feelings as the parent or caregiver, their feelings, the lack of having answers to all their questions. Even if you feel that your child doesn’t want to open up at the moment, always repeat that you are there for them, whether it’s questions or simply to talk.
The important thing as a parent is to not worry if your child isn’t having the reaction you expected. Honesty and reassurance are crucial here, even if it’s a little uncomfortable. That means avoiding analogies like “going to sleep” since they won’t directly understand the meaning. Depending on the age, consider having your child attend the funeral or wake. This can be an important way to introduce them to important religious or cultural beliefs and explain to them what they may see regarding others’ emotions. Every child is different, and their reactions may be different than adults, but there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief can be messy. It can be unpredictable and random, resulting in strong emotional reactions like sadness or anger. It can affect children’s behavior, to make them more clingy or irritable. Commonly, we may even see behavioral regressions (think wetting the bed or sucking their thumb).
How do you know if your child’s response is normal or warrants more professional medical expertise? I’m a big fan of being pro-active rather than retroactive. If there is a personality or behavior change, then I definitely advocate for approaching your child’s physician for further guidance. However, if we wait too long, we may begin to see behaviors like refusal to go to school, social activities, etc. In some cases, children may even exhibit suicidal thoughts, separation anxiety, serious sleep disturbances...which is why I prefer to take a more proactive approach and have the child see their pediatrician first who can guide you, the parent/guardian through helping the child through the grieving process.
While this blog post seems to lay out tips relatively clearly, in the unfortunate circumstances that we as parents or guardians are put in this situation, the last thing the situation will seem is clear or straightforward. I understand that. So I’ll leave you with one last piece of advice-don’t force discussion but remain open and please acknowledge your feelings as the parent. Try to return to some semblance of a daily routine which means returning to school in a timely manner and establishing some degree of normalcy. If you are concerned about your child, use your pediatrician as a resource and remember to reach out early.