How to Help Children Express Grief
One of the more difficult aspects of funeral planning—whether you’re doing it in the stages leading up to death or after the fact—is orienting children toward the proper methods of grief. Like adults, children grieve in different ways from one another, especially when you take into consideration different ages and the relationship each child had with the deceased.
Also similar to adults, children grieve through a series of steps, each one building on the last as they process their emotions and the sudden change in their world. Although the following is meant to be a guideline for these stages, please note that the advice offered here is never a substitute for professional therapy. When it comes to our kids, it can be very beneficial to seek guidance so that they not only mourn their loss properly, but also learn how to cope with future losses in their lives.
Stage One: Disorganization
Soon after a death occurs, children feel the shift in their life balance. Kids—especially very young ones—thrive on stability and schedules. Drastic changes to this stability will necessarily impact their understanding of the world. These emotions can take the form of exaggerated moods or fears, or even a withdrawal or lack of concentration.
Stage Two: Transition
As the child begins to accept the changes in his or her life, reactions will begin to occur. Feelings of extreme sadness, aggression, or hopelessness may occur—and for older kids, this can directly impact schoolwork and other life behaviors.
Stage Three: Reorganization
Like his or her adult counterparts, a child should eventually learn to rebuild a life without the deceased in it. Emotions should begin resuming a normal, daily pattern, though there may be marked moments where the full anguish returns.
Your role as parent or caregiver in this process is a difficult one. After all, you will also be processing your feelings and going through a bereavement period that can last months, years, and even decades of your life. However, while you are able to recognize your feelings and analyze them (to some degree), most children have not yet developed this capability. This is why children react with aggression and other behaviors that aren’t “grief-like” to our adult eyes. All they know is that they hurt, and they don’t know what to do about it.
• Be understanding of a child’s transition through grief.
• Listen when he or she needs to talk, and, more importantly, talk when he or she needs to talk. (Your first reaction might be to avoid bringing up a subject that is necessarily painful to you.
• Children, however, need an outlet, and they need to know that they can talk about the deceased without getting in trouble or receiving negative feedback of any kind.)
• Allow time and space for reflection, since everyone moves through grief at a different pace.
• Attend to both the physical and emotional needs of the child. (Adequate nutrition, lots of rest, and a wary eye are your friends as you all begin your journey through grief.)
• Funeral planning isn’t easy no matter what your age; but for children, it’s never a good idea to let bereavement go unchecked or suffered alone. Stay attuned to your child’s needs and be sure to seek the help of a licensed therapist if you fear your child isn’t progressing properly.