If a child you care for is grieving the loss of someone they cared deeply for, their grief may look very much different from the grief of the adults who suffered the same loss. There are many strategies for helping a child grieve depending on their developmental age and stage.
2-4 years old:
Children this age may not understand what death is. You can explain but it needs to be simple and short without any expectations that their cognitive abilities will be able to take in the information and use it appropriately. A child this age could easily be confused and think that someone who died can come see them again another time.
Explain, comfort, and reassure them that you are with them. Give them what they need to feel secure and a normal routine so that they understand what to expect next.
4-7 years old:
At this age, children are engaged in fantasy play. Many believe that their wishes and thoughts could have caused someone to die. They may have many questions about how the person died and why they died or conversely act like nothing happened. Emotions can run the gauntlet from sad to confused to even angry. They need to understand that all of their feelings are normal.
Have a look at a list of feelings with descriptive words and images such as this extensive discussion from Healthline and chat about what the emotions mean as you talk about which ones you or they feel. Make sure they know that you are not saying that their feelings are good or bad. How we act is important and there are actions that are not as good as others. Feelings themselves are not inherently good or bad.
This age child may especially enjoy role playing with stuffed animals, figurines, or dolls. If they want to pretend that someone died in a role playing game, this is a normal part of expressing their feelings about death and life.
7-11 years old
A child this age is thinking more clearly and may understand better what has happened. They may fixate on the details of how someone died or want to know how they should feel about what has happened. They may fear being abnormal or struggle with confidence as they grow faster and develop into tweens.
Grief at this age can cause a child to feel cautious or fearful that death could happen to them. They may still express deep feelings through play with toys and make believe games with friends or loved ones. Always encourage a child to use feeling words to talk about how their emotions throughout any given day. Let them express their feelings without judgment. Everyone’s grief is an individual journey through mixed emotions.
Not every child will wish to express their feelings with you. If they need more alone time or more attention, just try to meet their needs without trying to control their emotions. Some ups and downs are common at this age but if it seems like they are fixated on only the negative, seek out a counselor to help them express their feelings and move forward in life when they are ready. Help them find activities they enjoy and ways to get exercise.
Age 12 and up
This age understands what death is on a logical level, but may have spiritual questions and need guidance in how to frame death in their minds. They may ask more philosophical questions and remove themselves from emotion or alternatively have a personal vendetta with God or whoever may have “caused” the death in their mind. There may be more anger at this age if the loss was of someone very close to them or someone they depended on to have their emotional needs met.
Depression or eating disorders can be common at this age so watch for anorexia, extreme anger, irritability, and mood swings that never seem to fade. If there is acting out or neverending levels of pushing away and moodiness, a counselor who will listen and understand without judgment can help an adolescent face their feelings of anger and fear and move on to acceptance and hope again.
As an adult in their life, you can listen and encourage thinking and feeling by asking questions. If they talk about doing something that you think is a bad idea, help them think through the consequences by asking questions. When they express emotions, let them know that their feelings are normal. Help them express their fears and hurts without fearing judgment from you. Encourage them to seek out spiritual advisors if they are looking for spiritual meaning. Let them grow as their own person but keep some age appropriate boundaries in place to give security.
Take Cues from the Child
With any age child, it is important to take your cues from your interactions with them. Every kid is different and we need to treat each with respect for their individual struggles and concerns. Some kids may seem not to struggle at all but then hit a certain age where the questioning begins and they fall apart emotionally. Others may grieve hard for a year and then move forward. There is no right or wrong way to experience grief and there are many emotions involved in the process.
Supporting a child means helping them feel secure with their routine, expressing their feelings if so desired, giving them a listening ear whenever they need it, and supporting their physical development with nutrition and exercise. If they seem to be lost in overwhelming emotions for a time, it is always best to seek out counseling to help them not to act out in any way that would be harmful to themselves or others.
There are many counseling and grief sharing groups in the Triangle area. At Renaissance Funeral Home and Crematory, we recommend Transitions GriefCare. They are a trusted community resource offering bereavement support to people coping with the death of a family member, colleague, or friend. Their professional staff provides short-term counseling, support groups, workshops, and other services designed to compassionately meet the needs of adults, children, and teens seeking to address the unique challenges of grief and create a path toward healing.
Grief Care Groups for Kids:
- Educational and support groups.
- Individual counseling.
- Workshops, social activities, and camps.
- Art, play-based, and other specialized interventions.
- School-based programs
No Cost to Triangle Residents
Grief support is available at no cost to residents of Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Orange, and Wake counties, regardless of whether the family was served by Transitions LifeCare. Bereavement services must be initiated directly by the individual, or by the guardian of a minor child.
At Renaissance, we hope to be an advocate for mental health during the grieving process and for any needs you might have surrounding the death of a loved one. Check out our website for more resources including podcasts, pre-planning for funerals, and informational videos and blogs.
Or check out this informative video by Transitions Grief Care