How to Help Kids Cope with Grief & Loss

Helping kids cope with grief

Helping a child process grief and loss can be tough because they aren’t always able to express their thoughts and feelings verbally. 

A child’s grief may seem to come and go – one minute they’ll be crying, the next they’ll be playing.

Some kids will be expressive of their feelings, others not.

Some kids will re-experience the intensity of the loss as they grow up, especially during certain milestones in life such as starting school, going on a first date, graduating from college or getting married.

How can you help your child process their grief?

It’ll be helpful to understand how children understand death at different ages.

Birth to 2 Years

  • Have no understanding of death
  • May be aware of separation and will grieve the absence of the person
  • May cry more, be less responsive, and show changes in eating or sleeping

Age 3 to 6

  • Curious about death and believe it’s temporary or something like sleeping
  • May feel responsible for the death of the loved one
  • May think they can make the person who died come back if they are good enough
  • May fear being left behind or being alone
  • Very affected by the sadness of family members
  • Are not able express their feelings verbally and react through negative behaviours like biting or crying

 Age 6 to 12

  • Understands that death is final
  • Understands that death happens to everyone and cannot be avoided
  • Often interested in specific details of death and what happens after you die
  • May experience guilt, anger, anxiety, sadness, and worry about dying themselves
  • Will experience feelings of insecurity and fear abandonment
  • May become more clingy
  • May worry they are to blame for the death

Age 13 to 18

  • Has an adult understanding of death but does not have the emotional maturity to deal with it
  • May become angry or reckless
  • May get into negative behaviours such as fighting at school, sex, alcohol etc
  • May question their faith and God’s love
  • May withdraw from family and spend more time alone or with friends

On the whole, your child may display a variety of responses to grief and loss, such as:

  • Denial and confusion
  • Anger
  • Nightmares
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unusual fears – of the dark, of being alone, of going to school
  • Physical ailments – stomachaches or headaches
  • Excessive crying or exaggerated responses to small mishaps
  • Loss of concentration
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Reverting to outgrown behaviours – bedwetting, baby talk, thumb-sucking
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Playing games that revolve around dying
  • Becoming disruptive at home or school
  • Grades begin to slide
  • Sleeping problems

How can you help your child cope with grief and loss?

Use simple, clear words

Explain what happens when we die and what the future holds for those who have died simply. Avoid phrases like “passed away”, “gone” etc. Kids take things very literally and they can feel anxious, scared, and confused. Explain that the person’s body has stopped working and that they can no longer breathe, talk, move or eat.

Follow their lead

Answer your child’s questions when they ask. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information. Let them cry and express their emotions while you listen and offer comfort.

Invite openness

Encourage your child to say what he or she is thinking and feeling in the days, weeks, and months following the loss. Suggest other ways to express feelings such as writing in a journal or drawing a picture. Don’t shut down their feelings or pretend they don’t exist. For more on this read How to Help Kids Process Strong Emotions without Shutting them Down.

Talk about your own feelings

Sharing your own grief with your child can encourage him or her to share their own emotions. Don’t protect your child from your own grief, but don’t overwhelm your child with it either.   

Cherish memories

Encourage your child to cherish the memories of the person who died or the thing they lost. Make a photo collage or scrapbook of the person (or thing). Healing doesn’t mean forgetting the person or thing, it means remembering the person or thing with love and letting those loving memories stir good feelings.

Reassure your child

Let your child know that it’s normal for grief to come and go and that some days they will feel sad and others not. Help them go with the flow because it’s difficult to predict when they will feel sad.

Bring your child to Jesus for comfort

When your child feels overwhelmed, pray with him or her and ask God to send the Holy Spirit to comfort your child’s heart. He has promised to do this and the comfort is very real.

Maintain order and regularity

Try and keep the family routines and schedule as consistent as possible. Death and loss can make a child feel very insecure. Consistency and continuity keep a child grounded and secure because at least something in life is still “normal”.   

Give lots of love and affection

You can’t take away your child’s pain, but you can reassure him or her of your love. Your child may need more hugs, more story time, and just a little more attention all round.

Just like adults, children grieve differently. How they cope depends on things like their age, how close they felt to the person who died, and the support they receive.

Your part as the parent is to be there for your child for as long as the grieving process takes.

Did you lose someone or something as a child? How did you cope with the grief and loss? What would have helped you process the loss better?

About The Author

Jennifer Lovemore

Jennifer has diplomas in relationship counselling and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), is a certified SYMBIS facilitator, and is certified in TPM (Transformation Prayer Minsitry). She lives in South Africa, has three grown children, and is married to her best friend – Richard.

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