I often feel like children today are faced with grief more often than I ever was as a kid, but maybe I was just lucky or my perception is skewed. Regardless, children experience the loss of people who are important in their lives through accidents, illness, suicide and catastrophic events.
Before WWII, it was commonly believed children do not experience grief and death did not have much of an impact on them. Anna Freud (yes, of that Freud family) observed otherwise while working with children orphaned during the war.
Her observations influenced researchers to delve further into what happens to children who lose someone to death. Today, we know children do experience grief (inward feelings) and they mourn (outward actions), but inwardly and outwardly children’s grief can look different than adult grief.
There are so many important things to know about grief that it’s difficult to know where to start. I think the most important things are there is no timeline for grief, and grief never really ends, although it might become less intense over time.
Grief can be an overwhelming emotion even for adults. It might take time before a child can handle his or her grief, or a child might go in and out of grief, blocking it off when it is too intense to handle.
The older a child is, the more likely he or she might be able to express grief verbally, but sometimes it’s expressed in actions. Adults also do that sometimes even though we might not realize grief is what’s driving our actions.
Children might express grief in a variety of ways, including but not limited to playing, writing or drawing, getting angry, withdrawing, crying, wanting to snuggle or be held more, asking questions about death or talking about the dead person.
Each child will grieve in his or her own way, and that way might change over time. So how do you help a child who is grieving? Give kids more credit about what they know and what they can handle.
When they ask questions, tell them the truth in a way that is compassionate but not confusing. Avoiding words like “dead” or “killed” can allow children (especially very young ones) to think the person might come back someday.
Let children attend funerals and memorial services, but don’t force them. Explaining what will happen at the event and then letting children decide whether to attend is helpful. If a child does not want to attend, a remembrance ritual at home might be appropriate when the child is ready to do so.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the dead person with or in front of children. Saying that you miss the person or noting something he or she would have liked lets children know it is OK to remember and talk about the deceased when they are ready. When they are ready, listen.
Grief will probably pop back into visibility throughout the course of a person’s life. Events such as graduations, losing a tooth, winning an award, moving and other milestones might trigger intense grief and mourning for a time. It is perfectly normal and should never be discouraged.
Let children see you mourn. Children need to know it is OK to mourn and for others to see them mourn. Don’t praise children who don’t seem to be grieving much. Saying how well they are handling grief or they are handling it like an adult (i.e. hiding the grief) might be damaging in the long run.
Attending a children’s support group with other children who have experienced the death of someone in their lives can help children feel understood. Camp Chmepa and Kidz Count Family Support Group are examples of grief groups that support children.
Groups like the National Alliance for Grieving Children (childrengrieve.org) and Hospice Foundation of America (hospicefoundation.org) have online resources and links to support groups and other help.
Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center.
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