When children experience the death of a loved one

© Caroline Witten-Hannah for Auckland Therapy Blog, 17 August 2018.

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child grievingHow Children Grieve

Children, like all people, grieve in their own unique way. There is no need to teach a child how to grieve, their strong sense of intuition is usually their best guide. However children will be influenced by how other family members are expressing their grief and sometimes children try to look after distressed adults in the family. The important thing for children’s recovery is that they are helped to grieve in the way that is right for them and in their own time.

Emotional Support

Like all people who are experiencing a loss, children will have ups and downs. Children need their supportive adults to be there for them when they are sad, angry, upset and need to talk Listen when a child talks without any judgement. Validate their feelings and experiences as this will help them gain a sense of safety and control. Tell the child that the pain and sadness that they are experiencing will subside and decrease. Maybe if they are old enough show them the grief curve and put it in words they can understand.

Resist trying to fix a child’s pain by avoidance or distraction. Don’t say “it is time to move on” or "get over it” because they need to grieve in their own time, which may be different from other people. The worst outcome for a child is unresolved grief which can result in a wide range of long term difficulties.

Give Children Choices

Giving a child choices helps them feel some level of control. Let a child choose how he/she wants to say goodbye to the person who has died. Offer some suggestions and then let them choose.

Give a child choices about pictures and memorabilia e.g. some children want pictures in their room, while others feel uncomfortable with too many reminders of the person.

Give children choices on choosing keepsakes, clothes or objects that belonged to the deceased person. A great thing to do with a child is to make a memory book about the person who died. Use photos and encourage the child to write and draw their memories. You can help younger children by writing what they say about the person who died and draw with them.

Helpful Tips

Talking about the person who died is part of the healing process. Bringing up the person who died in conversations gives a child permission to share his/her feelings, memories, thoughts and questions. Sharing memories of the loved one reminds a child that the person will “live on” and will not be forgotten. This brings children comfort.

After a death in the family it is important to maintain routines, boundaries and rules as much as possible. These things create a sense of safety and predictability for a child.

It is not unusual for a child to start to worry about loosing other people who they are close to. This can manifest in clinginess and separation anxiety in children for a while. Give them lots of reassurance and understand why they are feeling this way. For most children this will pass in time.