Helping children to cope with grief

Young boy sitting downcast on the floor with his back to a wall at school.

Children may watch cartoons and TV programmes where someone dies or an animal is eaten by a big sabre tooth tiger, but for a child to experience a bereavement first hand, is a different matter entirely. It can be very confusing for the child, and of course, as a parent we are eager to make this process as easy as possible for them. We can’t stop the pain, but we can help him/her understand their feelings.

Childhood grief?

Children grieve very differently from adults – they may be crying one minute and laughing the next, but this doesn’t mean that he isn’t feeling the sadness. The younger child will more than likely regress to childlike behaviours such as bed wetting, stool holding, speaking in a baby voice etc…

He/she may become angry, lashing out at loved ones and it is important to let them know that it’s OK to express their feelings.

I remember when my own dad passed away, I was petrified how my then 11 year old daughter was going to be – I imagined the worst – hysteria and tears, anger and screaming but she was in fact, very calm, and said: “ Oh mum, well I guess we knew he wasn’t going to live forever didn’t we?” I think I just looked at her in amazement! Yes, she had her tears but because I had spoken to her previously about death, and the possibility of grandad dying because he had been so ill and was growing old, she was at least prepared.

There are so many great books out there that help children come to terms with death. You can read these to your child, or with your child, and a good way for a child to express their emotions is by drawing pictures, or, playing with glove puppets.

When mums and dads ask me how they can deal with a child who is grieving I always tell them to be honest with the child. Don’t tell a young child that Grandma has “gone to sleep” because he will expect her to wake up! Don’t give too much information, just answer their questions as honestly as possible.  Young children can’t really understand that concept that death is forever – they know that death is bad, but they don’t really think beyond that.

Should children attend a funeral?

I get asked this question a lot! I always say that it’s really down to the age and the maturity of the child, whose funeral it is, and do YOU as a parent think that the child will cope emotionally. Don’t forget there’s also a lot of standing around at funerals and children do get bored quickly. However funerals can be good for having ‘Closure’ and the child will see that the deceased has “gone” and won’t be coming back. Never force a child to attend a funeral – give him or her the choice.

So, if the child attends the funeral, how do you prepare him or her?

First of all, you must explain exactly what’s going to happen. Explain that there will be a coffin, and make sure you prepare the child if it’s going to be an open casket! Explain that it will be a very sad occasion and that some people will cry and may look quite distressed but explain to them that that is normal, and they will soon feel better afterwards. Children’s behaviour can be predictable at the best of times and you don’t know how your little one is going react, so just be prepared. If you decide that he shouldn’t attend the funeral maybe you could have your own “ farewell” little celebration at home with some balloons that can be released with little notes attached or perhaps plating a lovely rose bush in the garden, all these things will help pride the child with closure.

Children will quite often copy the behaviour of the parents and its important that they you DO show your emotions, however, try not to be totally out of control as this will teach your child unhealthy ways of dealing with bereavement. A child, like all of us, has to understand that life does go on, and once we have spent some time being sad, we can then have all the happy memories of our loved one.

For most children, the first experience they have of death or loss, is the loss of a pet. Don’t underestimate the importance of their grief, remember their pet has been their best friend, their “child” in a way, because they care for it, their confidante, everything to them! Don’t rush out and buy them a new pet immediately – they need time to grieve.

The death of a grandpa or grandma is a common experience for children, and it may make them ask questions and query their own or your mortality! Be prepared for that and reassure the child that you are not going anywhere for a long, long time.

PTSD or Adjustment Disorder

Sometimes after a death in the family the child, if they have seen the deceased very ill before he passed away, may have flashbacks and nightmares and could be suffering from PTSD Post traumatic Stress Disorder, which will mean he or she will need some therapy to help him deal with his emotions and the feelings he’s experiencing.

Sometimes the child or teen who is grieving may go on to have symptoms of depression, sleep problems, loss of appetite etc and if this should happen it may be that they are struggling with Adjustment Disorder, basically they have not been able to adjust back to normal day to day life after the traumatic event.

The treatment of this would possibly be some counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, NLP and Hypnotherapy. However, if you are worried about someone do contact me at:

I treat many children and adults at my two clinics for grief, PTSD and anxiety related disorders.

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