When a family experiences loss, many parents struggle to help kids with their grief. But it’s truly the child’s own network of trusted adults who will best help the child to process a death.
That can be an overwhelming task for adults who are also struggling to work through their own grief. But as the Bereavement Coordinator for Hospice of the South Shore, I’ve seen many families successfully support their youngest members after a loss.
Here are some things you can do to help a child who is grieving:
Explain the death simply and honestly. Many adults think that kids can’t handle information about death. But withholding information will confuse your child, and they may fill in the blanks with details that are far worse than the facts. Even if the circumstances of the loss are ambiguous, such a death by overdose or suicide, you may share what caused the death using developmentally-appropriate language. I once worked with a 4-year-old child whose parent died by overdose. She explained the death to her peers sharing, “My Daddy died because he didn’t take care of himself.” Adults are often surprised by how well kids can cope with difficult information, as long as they are supported.
But don’t overwhelm. Keep the explanation simple, but make sure kids know they can come to you for more information. Young kids may not completely understand what death means, and may ask if they can visit Grandpa after he’s passed. This is a great time to explain that Grandpa’s body isn’t here anymore, but the family will do things to keep his memory alive. Depending on your family’s beliefs, you can incorporate the spiritual aspects of death here too. Follow your child’s lead on what they want to learn, and when.
Understand normal grief response. Behaviors that may alarm adults may be normal grief response in kids. Young children who have already been potty trained may develop bed wetting behavior again for a brief while. Kids of all ages may experience stomachaches, irritability, or have difficulty concentrating. Reassure your child as they experience their grief and model healthy ways to cope. “I’ve had trouble concentrating at work too. It helps when I talk about Grandpa with people who knew him.”
Some children may turn inward. While some kids may be very open with questions, others may not want to discuss the loss. Or they may want to in spurts. That’s normal too. Like adults, children grieve in different ways. They also need to play, and take a “break” from heavy things. Reassurance can go a long way here, too. “You’ve been very quiet since Grandpa died. Do you have any questions you want to ask me?”
Trust your gut. Adults should watch the frequency, severity and duration of their child’s grief response. You know your child best, so trust your instincts when a child’s response to loss isn’t healthy. It’s also helpful to keep in touch with your child’s teachers on how he or she is behaving at school. If a child becomes preoccupied with the death or continually withdraws, consider asking for additional help. The National Alliance for Grieving Children has great resources to help families support children, as does Hospice of the South Shore.
The most important thing for adults to know? You don’t have to “fix it” or “stay strong” and hide your own grief from the young people in your life. Being open about your own grief is the best way to help your child process the death of someone they love.
Need more information on helping a child through grief? Join Hospice of the South Shore for “Supporting Grieving Kids & Teens: Tools for Caregivers” on Monday, November 27 from 6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. at 30 Reservoir Park Drive in Rockland. This free, one-session workshop provides information and concrete suggestions for adults helping kids and teens navigate loss. Call (781) 624-7046 for more information or to register.