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