Children and Grief
I was ten when my grandmother died, and until her death I had not experienced loss. For me, death was something “out there” and only for people over sixty. The idea of being a young widow never entered my mind; then Rick died suddenly at the age of fifty. My youngest child was eight. Here are some things I learned about helping a child grieve.
Tell your child the truth. If family members know the cause of death but it is not explained to the child, she will probably learn the truth from someone else. Be careful not to give more information than a young child can handle, but be truthful. Don’t say, “God took your grandpa to heaven,” or “God needed another angel.” She may believe God can’t be trusted because He snatches away those we love.
Include him or her in the process. Are you planning a funeral or deciding what to engrave on a headstone? Give your child the opportunity to contribute ideas. My daughter wrote a story about a trip she took with her dad, and it became an important part of his eulogy.
Keep your daily schedule as normal as possible. When tragedy spins life out of control, mundane and everyday activities can give a child comfort in knowing that some things haven’t changed.
Alert your child’s teacher and school counselor. My daughter was included in a small group of children who had faced the death of family members. She realized she was not completely alone, and the group gave her a neutral place to talk about her feelings. She also gained a deep empathy for other children in grief.
Allow tears. Be prepared for unexpected bouts of crying. Bedtime can be especially difficult for a child who has lost someone who kissed him goodnight or participated in special bedtime rituals. He may have trouble falling asleep. Try rocking him, rubbing his back, and don’t be afraid to cry with him.
Encourage conversation about the person who has died. Healing may not take place if grief is suppressed and the mention of death is avoided. Share moments of sadness as well as happy memories. My children and I bring up Rick’s funny and endearing quirks, and even laugh about them.
Be patient with your child and yourself. Don’t expect your child to feel better in a few weeks or months; the grieving process can take years.
Keep memories alive. Avoid putting away all your pictures and reminders, or making drastic changes in your home too soon. Keep holiday traditions intact, but don’t be afraid to add new ones to the old.
Seek out help for your child. Check with your local Hospice to see if it provides grief groups. Our Hospice held six-week sessions for children who had lost close family members. Parents met separately, and children were grouped according to age. The same agency conducted overnight camps twice a year for children of all ages. Counseling agencies and funeral homes sometimes offer grief groups as well.
Watch for signs of depression. Seek help from a professional counselor if your child exhibits any of these signs for more than a few weeks: frequent bouts of crying or angry outbursts, sleeping too little or too much, trouble concentrating, loss of interest in daily activities, withdrawal from friends or family members, changes in eating habits.
Look for unique ways to comfort your child. Ask someone who works with wood to build a “treasure box” for your child. It can be used to keep special mementos and pictures of your loved one.
If you or a friend can sew, ask your child to choose a favorite article of clothing belonging to the person who has died. A stuffed bear can be made of the fabric, or a quilt can be made from scraps of several pieces of clothing.
Buy special frames for your child’s favorite pictures of her loved one, and display the pictures on her dresser or nightstand.
Helping a child through grief is not easy, especially if you are grieving too. Jesus wept when his close friend Lazarus died, and I believe he weeps with us when death takes someone we love. Pray for strength and allow God to comfort you. “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Cor. 1:4 NLT).