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Helping Our Children Navigate Personal Loss

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Our children are experiencing life, not just preparing for it. We can help them gain the tools and insights necessary to deal with the losses that come with a full, connected life.

-by Diane Ferber, LMFTA Marriage and Family Therapy, MA, C.A.S. School Psychology

Child crying in black & white
Child in greif

Our children, unfortunately, are likely to experience loss during their childhood, whether it is a pet, neighbor, classmate, grandparent or other family member. In many situations, it can be difficult to know how to help children cope with the loss, especially if their loved one is also our loved one, and we are working through our own grief. This is true for both families and for school communities that experience the loss of a parent, student, or teacher.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, for primary grade children, adult reactions will play an especially important role in shaping a child’s perceptions of the situation. This piece offers a brief compilation of practical advice from experts about how to talk to our kids about loss, including developmentally appropriate language, answering questions, sharing beliefs, letting our children see our own grief, and making choices about including them in specific activities.

How much our children can understand about death depends a great deal on their age. There are many sources that provide detailed information as to coping at different developmental levels, and appropriate supports and programs; this article is intended only as an overview of the issues that are likely to arise. Together, a child’s family and school can unite to support a child through the losses that invariably come with a connected life, and provide skills that will help them navigate future events.

Children and Grief: Children will process grief differently than an adult Young children have less experience in the feelings that accompany loss, and in processing their own strong emotions. It is important to understand that children grieve differently than adults, and differently by age. A child will often will grieve in ‘spikes,’ on and off periods of coping and non coping as they struggle to identify what they are feeling and learn how best to protect and express themselves when overwhelmed. Because this is different than an adult’s continuous grieving, it can be misunderstood. A child’s on and off grieving pattern should not be taken as a signal that he has quickly moved beyond the grief, or that she is manipulating the situation. Children grieve on and off as a means of self-protection. As they grow, children may also re-experience grief as they move into new developmental stages, and as their understanding of death and awareness of the impact on their lives develop. At each developmental milestone, the acuteness of the loss can resurface and express itself.

The importance of language, being a good listener, and communication: Simple, honest, open and direct.

A child’s ability to understand ‘death’ and what it means is dependent on their age and developmental level. However, experts stress that is always best to use simple, honest words, including “died.” Euphemisms (“taken away,” “lost,” “passed,” etc.) may be confusing to children, and can even fuel anxiety of being abandoned or unsafe. Often, we avoid direct wording and discussion in the belief that the child will not be able to handle it, or it will make them upset. (And, often, it is our own discomfort with the language and process that creates our avoidance.) We cannot shelter our children from death, grief and trauma, but we can help them deal with their feelings and encourage them to go on with their lives. Research shows that children who have been allowed to openly grieve and discuss their feelings with a supportive adult are less likely to suffer long term adverse effects. We can be good listeners, provide them with terms for their feelings (grief, sadness, fear, numbness, etc.), and answer concretely and lovingly – even when they ask us over and over again, as they integrate the reality of what has happened. Finally, allowing our children to see us cry and grieve helps them learn how to express grief, and that it is okay to cry and show emotion. Though our example, they can learn how we, and they, can comfort each other.

How do you answer, “Why?” This is a question we may be struggling with on a deeper level ourselves. Experts suggest explaining that death is part of all living things, and stress that it is not their fault and that no one is to blame. Children, especially the younger ones, are not thinking so much about the larger metaphysical questions, as much as trying to understand more concrete cause and effect. Bringing in the role of religion and personal beliefs is a family decision, but many experts suggests that it is more comforting to children if they have been raised in a religious tradition up to this point; the introduction of a religion and its theology all at once may be confusing. Finally, it is okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers.

Man on couch attending therapy session
Preparing to Confront Greif

How do you know if a child should attend a service?

Rituals involving family members may bring comfort, allowing our children to be supported and say goodbye, and most experts suggest a child’s involvement in some way. While attendance at the funeral, burial, and other events is a personal decision; experts suggest that children six year or older should be allowed if they want to. However, it will be important to explain in detail ahead of time what will happen and what they will see, hear, and do (open/closed casket, crying, talking, reminiscing, etc.) Let them ask questions.

Involving our Children’s Schools Death is disruptive. Schools can function as a stable framework for a grieving child by providing the routines, structure, and normalcy that can reassure a child that they have supports and continuity. Ideally, parents should let the school/teachers know about the death as soon as possible. School personnel can help by monitoring the child’s behavior and emotional condition (anger, withdrawal, regression, sadness are common) and offer guidance and understanding. Specifically, a school psychologist is trained in grief and trauma, and can monitor the child to make sure they are processing the grief, and make referrals for additional support if necessary. The school can also support the community around the child. The school can talk to a child’s class about the child’s loss, discuss ways in which they can be helpful, things they may say, and relay the grieving child’s preferences for how much/little they want to talk about it. With permission, the school can also inform the community of parents and suggest ways in which to support the family. When appropriate, grieve counselors can be made available.

Signs of more ‘complicated’ grief: Things for parents and school personnel to look for in a grieving child

Many children experiencing loss will evidence changes in behavior and functioning. While specific behaviors are more expected at specific ages, a child’s expressions of grief may take the form of regression to the behavior of a younger self, clinginess, irritability, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, apathy, non-compliance, impulsivity, risk taking, somatic complaints, depression, distractibility, decline in school work, and loss of interest in play. Short term behaviors are normal and expected, and we can accept the behavior while gently encouraging the child to return to their previous level of functioning. We can help the child express feelings and concerns through drawing, play, and writing. We can give the child extra time to complete tasks and school work, and offer venting alternatives to give voice to their feelings.

Mother and child making art together
Mother and child in conversation

Because children do not react to grief in a uniform way, they can react differently at home and at school, and for different lengths of time. It is important to be patient, but set and enforce limits as usual. However, there are specific things that may need to be directly addressed by parents, school counselors, physicians, grief counselors and/or family therapists:

  1. Be alert to a child feeling guilty or responsible for a loved one’s death (angry thought/words, or their ‘bad’ behavior). Reassure them that this is not true, not even a little.

  2. Be alert to a child’s fear that you (parent, caregiver, teacher) may die and no one will take care of them, and reassure them that there will always be someone to take care of them.

  3. Be alert to an extended period of depression, loss of interest in activities.

  4. Be alert to an extended period of hostility and/or isolation.

  5. Be alert to persistent panic, fear, sleeplessness.

  6. For older children, be alert to sharp and prolonged drop in school performance, attendance, risky behavior.

Have you had any experience with a grieving child? If you feel comfortable, share you experience in the comments below. We'd love your contribution.

Please contact us with questions, for a consultation or for more information.


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