Helping a grieving child - whether you are their parent, guardian or other relation - is challenging because children think about death and loss in very different ways to adults. They might not be able to communicate their grief clearly, and how they handle it will change depending on their age.
How do you support a grieving child?
You support a bereaved child by listening to them, understanding how children process grief, and observing how they progress through the bereavement journey.
How do children cope with grief at different ages?
The way a child copes with grief depends on their age, as this will affect how much they are able to understand the concept of death. Every child is different, but generally grief tends to appear in the following ways:
Babies and young toddlers will have a very limited understanding of death and grief. They may be aware of someone important missing, but they will not understand why. This may disrupt their sleep pattern or make them harder to comfort when they are crying.
Toddlers and young children, up to five or six years old, will better understand that their loved one is missing, although they may not fully understand that they are gone forever. They may have a lot of questions as they seek to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
Children roughly between the ages of six and twelve will likely understand that death is permanent and they will never see their loved one again. They may develop an intense fear of death, sometimes called thanatophobia. They may also experience guilt, believing that they are somehow to blame for the loss. Teenage bereavement is similar to adults, but people at this age are usually less able to express their feelings in a healthy way. The challenges and uncertainty of this time of life can make grief even harder to cope with.
Here are five tips for talking to children about death and dying:
1. Find out what they think about death first
This can be a really helpful way of starting a conversation. If a child asks you, “What does ‘dying’ mean?” you could respond by asking, “What do you think it means?”
This isn’t an avoidance tactic – you can find out what they already know or what they think they know. It’s a golden opportunity to let them express themselves and correct any misinformation they might have picked up. Do so gently, explaining in simple terms what happens when someone dies.
2. Use simple language and avoid euphemisms
“She’s passed away”, “He’s gone to a better place”, “He’s sleeping”, “I’m afraid we’ve lost your grandma.” All of these phrases, while trying to be comforting, are vague euphemisms. Children can be easily confused and may take these phrases at face value, thinking that their loved one is literally sleeping or lost.
Don’t be afraid to use the word “dead” or “death”. It may sound blunt, but children often want the facts. Explain that death means the heart stops working, breathing stops, and that person can’t feel pain. Use simple words that they will understand.
3. Let them know it’s okay to be sad
If you’re explaining death because someone has died, you might want to also talk about the feelings that this can cause. Let the child know that death can make people feel sad, angry or confused, and that people might act strangely during this time. Tell them that if they feel like crying that’s okay, but it’s also okay if they don’t.
Remember that children grieve very differently from adults. They might not cry or show sadness, but it’s still good to let them know that they can if they need to.
4. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know
Children can ask some really difficult questions, such as: “What happens after death?” “Does heaven really exist?” and “Why do people have to die?” As much as you’d like to give them definite answers, the truth is that the human race has been striving to answer these questions for thousands of years and we still don’t know exactly.
Admitting that you don’t know isn’t a bad thing. Simply explain that everyone has different ideas and that there are some questions in life to which we don’t have definite answers.
5. Don’t just talk, listen
Giving information and answers is important, but equally important is listening to what the child has to say. When they’re giving their opinion or voicing concerns, make sure you listen closely and understand what they’re trying to say. If you don’t understand, ask them to clarify.
Ultimately, you want this to be a conversation, not just a presentation of facts. Listening to them will let them know that they can trust you to take them seriously. This is an important part of helping them open up about what they are feeling.
It is important to remember that children ‘dip’ in and out of grief. They may seem completely overwhelmed by sadness one moment, and then be playing happily with friends the next. Shortly after this they may go back to crying and screaming. This is entirely normal and not a sign that they are unstable or not coping well. In fact, this is often a child’s best way of coping; when the grief becomes too much, their mind instinctively switches to a new, distracting thought to stop them from becoming overwhelmed.