“Where did grandpa go?” On any ordinary day this may be an innocent enough question for a child to ask, but when it is asked at the time when that child’s grandfather has just passed away, many parents and adults find it quite difficult to answer. Most parents are afraid that they might say the wrong thing, or that the child would not understand the concept of death or how to react to it, so they choose instead to give vague answers or no answer at all.
But parents and other adults should not view death as a taboo topic for children or view grief from loss as something they must protect their children from. When families experience the loss of a loved one, it is difficult for every member of the family, and this includes the children.
How Children Express Grief
But unlike adults, children most often are not aware of what death really means, do not understand the impermanence of life, and do not express or experience grief in the same way. The way they react to a loss, and their understanding of it, depends on many things: their age, personality, experiences and other family members’ reactions. Because of these factors, every child will have their own way of expressing grief. These may include:
- Sadness, crying a lot
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Irritation, anger
- Denial, confusion
- Loss of interest in play or everyday activities
- Boisterous play
- Having nightmares and not being able to sleep
- Developing fears that sound unreasonable
- Constantly and repetitively asking questions about the deceased; imitating the deceased or saying they want to join the deceased
- Playing games that revolve around death or people coming back
- Displaying behaviour of a much younger child (bedwetting, thumb sucking, asking for help for tasks they normally do on their own)
- Frequently complaining of physical aches (headaches, stomach aches)
- Inability to concentrate
All these actions could lead to harmful and lasting consequences if the child is not approached or aided by a parent or adult. It is therefore of the utmost importance that adults help children through this difficult time.
Talking to Children about Loss
The most important step when helping children cope with loss is to talk to them. Parents would be the most ideal people to talk to their children, but if the parent or parents are also coping with their own grief, then a close adult relative or trusted friend may be the one to speak to them.
When talking to children about the death of a loved one, an atmosphere of comfort, openness and honesty must always be established so they can feel free to express themselves. It is best to talk in simple, concrete terms especially for children younger than 6 years old since younger children have a very simple and literal view of the world. So in explaining the death of a loved one, it is better to equate death as the body of that person not working anymore rather than a person “passing away”, “gone for a long time”, “going to sleep” or “lost” because these will allow your child to think that the person may still be coming back. For older children this may not be as necessary, since they often have a much better grasp of what death is, but they will need the same amount of support afterwards.
Helping Children Grieve
Children may ask a lot of questions after, or keep asking the same questions again and again. Parents and adults should take care not to be impatient with answering them, but calmly answer in the same simple, honest manner. They should also be open and available for whenever children need to talk about their fears and uncertainties, and take time to listen and validate their feelings. This helps maintain openness in communication and expression and may also give parents an opportunity to share their beliefs about the afterlife.
Other ways that parents and adults can help children cope with grief and loss include:
- Giving children affection and a sense of security. Parents or close adults should readily show children affection, and they should not keep from showing their own grief to their children. This lets children know that it’s okay to express how they feel. But parents should also assure them that despite this loss and how they are feeling, they are still present and can take care of their children.
- Informing children of what may happen. To keep a child’s sense of security, parents or other adults need to explain to children events that may happen next – such as what to expect during funeral services, what they may feel for a while after and even how the parent may feel or act for a while, and assure the child that they will get through it together.
- Giving children opportunities to express their grief verbally and non-verbally. Adults should always be open and available when children need to talk, and help them express through other ways like art, playing, writing, or through their own unique ways of memorialising their lost loved one.
- Sharing good memories about the deceased and helping children remember them through photos and stories.
- Keeping normal routines. Loss can greatly affect a child’s sense of order, so they need to regain that order back through routine activities.
- Contacting other helpful resources. Friends and family members offer great support, but children may need more help when dealing with grief. Many groups offer great support tools specifically for kids, and can be contacted easily online or through a funeral planner. Funeral Alliance Solutions is one company in Australia that not only offers complete funeral arrangements and funeral services but also gives grieving families access to powerful support tools for kids.
When a family experiences loss, parents should view it not as a horrible ordeal children must be kept away from. It is a time to teach children about the value of life, help them build emotional resources that can help them later in life, and a time to express their love for their children.