An older sibling who just got his driver’s license dies in a car accident. The new baby that you so looked forward to for nine months prior to its arrival dies from SIDS. A classmate is brutally slain in another senseless school shooting. Mom who had struggled with addiction for years dies of an overdose. Grandpa had been declining from dementia and then dies from cancer. The uncle who had suffered from mental illness commits suicide.
These situations and so many more not mentioned here are examples of the losses our children face every day. And to complicate things, perhaps after the loss, the family has to move, and the child must adjust to a new school and classmates, or maybe the child is now under the care of another family member or even a foster family.
Grief is no simpler with children than with adults. And just as with adults, all children grieve differently based on their personality, support systems, the relationship with the person who died and what developmental stage they are in at the time of the loss.
As a parent or family member taking care of a child who is grieving, chances are good you may also be dealing with your own grief. Most parents will put their needs aside to make sure their child is getting appropriate help and support. However, if the adults don’t address their own grief, the child’s emotional needs may go unaddressed, or their healing may be prolonged. It is imperative that the adults seek the support necessary for them to keep moving forward so that the children can heal as well.
All children grieve differently
Regardless of what grade they are in at school, their age or stage of development, it is important to remember that all children grieve differently. We must not assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings. There are, however, general guidelines for dealing with children and grief.
- Should you try and hide the truth from a child? No, try not to tell lies or half-truths. Children will see through false information. Tell them the truth about their loved one’s death and how it happened in ways they can understand. When you keep the truth from them, they can sense that something is not right, and then their imagination takes over, sometimes going to places much worse than reality. Explain what it means to be dead, such as “she stopped breathing” or “his body didn’t work anymore.”
And try to avoid using euphemisms such as “passed away” or “in a better place,” as these can confuse children and create a false hope that the person may come back some day. Children will stop asking questions when they feel satisfied with the answers.
- Should you force a child to participate in traditions following a death? No, allow the child to make his or her own choices. Children should be given a choice about whether they wish to participate in the funeral, memorial or celebration of life.
They need to be given information about what will occur so they can make an informed decision (what will happen, who will be there, will the deceased body be present and what that will look like).
If they choose to participate, an adult should be available for the child in case they need reassurance or want to leave early. If they choose not to attend, provide a means for them to say goodbye in another way, such as making a memory box with them or creating another type of memorial.
- Should you rush your child to “get over it” or stop feeling sad? No, children need to grieve in their own time in their own way. Let them know that grief is a normal reaction to loss and that everyone grieves differently.
Be sure to support them in having a variety of feelings and give them appropriate ways to express these. When talking with a child about their grief or the loss, try to keep their hands busy with activities like coloring, using Play-Doh or drawing pictures. Help them identify their “tools” for dealing with the loss, such as who they can talk with when they are sad and writing in a journal when they are thinking about the loved one who has died.
Remember, children’s grief looks very different from adult grief. They may be crying one minute, and then off playing the next. This does not mean they have not been impacted by the loss; they just need to take breaks from the grief.
- Should you allow your grieving child to ignore family expectations and rules of behavior? NO, continue to provide structure, limits and reassurance. Children need to feel some sense of continuity. Their lives have been disrupted by this loss.
Perhaps they have been moved from their home or are now under the care of another family member. Keeping them on a schedule they are familiar with will help provide the structure they need.
And remember to continue to maintain the same rules and limits. Giving them “slack” because they are sad does more harm than good. Their lives may feel out of control and these limits will help them feel safer and more secure.
The entire family goes through a transition as everyone grieves and mourns the loss. During this time, children need to feel that they are still loved, that they are an important part of the family, that everyone will get through this and that they were not to blame.
Help is available
Friends of Citrus and the Nature Coast provides help, hope and healing to people in grief. For children ages 6-17, we have Camp Good Hope/Teen Encounter mini-camps.
These half-day camps provide a safe environment for children to talk about their loss, learn about grief and the feelings that accompany it, and gain valuable “tools” for managing their grief through activities utilizing arts and crafts, music and song, nature and wellness.
Therapy Dog Dutch is there to help ease anxiety, and a mix of professional staff and knowledgeable volunteers is available to help guide their experience.
Parents/caregivers are encouraged to come at noon to learn about that day’s camp activities and get information about programs available for them. There are a number of support group offerings that help meet the grieving needs of the adults who are also dealing with the loss.
Please contact us at 352-249-1470 for more information or to register a child for camp.
Our next mini-camp will be held in Homosassa Springs on Saturday, Aug. 28, from 9 a.m. until noon, followed by lunch.