Children and teenagers express their grief in a variety of ways. Some may be sad and verbalize the loss like many adults. Depending on their ages, however, they may show sadness only sometimes and for short periods. Children may complain of physical discomfort, such as stomach aches or headaches. Or they may express anxiety or distress about other challenges, such as school or sports.
Loss is more intense when the child had a close relationship with the person who died, such as a parent or sibling. However, this is not always obvious from a child’s reactions. A child’s grief may seem to come and go. And a child may rarely verbally express his or her grief. This is normal. Your child may also re-experience the intensity of the loss as he or she grows up. This may occur more often during certain milestones in life, such as starting school. Even into adulthood, important events such as graduating from college or getting married may trigger renewed grief.
As a parent, you can’t protect a child from the pain of loss, but you can help him feel safe. And by allowing and encouraging him to express his feelings, you can help him build healthy coping skills that will serve him well in the future.
PARENTAL GUIDE: HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD COPE
Addressing daily routine and role changes
The death of a parent or other close family member can directly affect a child’s day-to-day life. Family routines and roles change, such as a surviving parent having to return to work and spend less time at home. These changes are an added disruption and may add to a child’s distress. Even young children will benefit from extra preparation, conversations, and support around these transitions.
Although the death of a family member with cancer is painful, it may also lessen some of a child’s stress. For example, the death of a sibling might mean that a parent is not dividing time between a sick child at the hospital and another child at home. It is normal to have strong, mixed feelings, including some relief, when a family member’s suffering is over after a long or difficult illness. Help your child realize that these feelings are normal and that he or she should not feel guilty for having them.
Encourage a child grieving to express feelings
It’s good for kids to express whatever emotions they are feeling. There are many good children’s books about death, and reading these books together can be a great way to start a conversation with your child. Since many children aren’t able to express their emotions through words, other helpful outlets include drawing pictures, building a scrapbook, looking at photo albums, or telling stories.
Attending the funeral
Whether or not to attend the funeral is a personal decision that depends entirely on you and your child. Funerals can be helpful for providing closure, but some children simply aren’t ready for such an intense experience. Never force a child to attend a funeral. If your child wants to go, make sure that you prepare him for what he will see. Explain that funerals are very sad occasions, and some people will probably be crying.
Honouring and remembering the person who died
Children as young as age 3 understand the concept of saying goodbye. They should be allowed to choose how they say goodbye to a loved one.
- Give preschool-age and older children the choice of attending memorial services. But do not force them to attend if they do not want to.
- Some children may want to attend a memorial service but not a viewing or burial.
- Allow older children and teenagers to help their younger siblings understand and stand up to them as a support system.
- Talk with children about what will happen at a service ahead of time. Consider visiting the church or cemetery.
When discussing death, never use euphemisms. Kids are extremely literal, and hearing that a loved one “went to sleep” can be scary. Besides making your child afraid of bedtime, euphemisms interfere with his opportunity to develop healthy coping skills that he will need in the future.
HOW AS A TEENAGER YOU CAN HELP YOURSELF DEAL WITH GRIEF
Just as each person’s experience of grief is unique, coping strategies work differently for each person, here are some tips for coping with loss:
Forgive yourself for the things you regret doing or saying to your loved one. Also forgive yourself for the things you regret not doing or saying. Processing the pain that comes with regrets and unfulfilled wishes can help you to focus more on the good memories.
Find ways to connect.
You can continue connecting to the relationship you had with the person you lost. This could include thinking about advice he or she may have given you, looking at photos or videos, or recalling fond and meaningful memories.
Allow yourself to experience the pain of loss.
As much as it hurts, it is natural and healthy to grieve. Sometimes people feel guilty about the way they feel, thinking they should “get over it.” Let yourself grieve and fully experience your feelings, such as shock, sadness, anger, and loneliness. Don’t judge yourself for any feelings you have, even if you think you shouldn’t have them. Let yourself react in ways that help you process and release intense emotions, even if it means crying or screaming. Some people set aside private time every day to think about their loved one and experience the feelings that arise. This approach is especially helpful for those who have difficulty showing their feelings to others.
Allow your grief to unfold at a pace that is natural for you. Don’t judge or criticize yourself for not coping as well or healing as quickly as you think you should. Each person needs to grieve in ways that feel right for them.
Talk with others.
Talking about your loss and sadness with others may help you process and release your feelings. Let family and friends know that it can be helpful for you to share your feelings with them. Reassure them that you don’t expect them to have answers; you just hope that they can listen.
Give yourself a break from grieving. It is healthy to take breaks from grieving with pleasant activities and interactions with supportive family members and friends. People need a break from the pain of grieving. Part of adapting to a loss is to go back and forth between focusing on the loss and finding a way to be in the world without the person you lost. For example, you might choose to go to dinner with friends, take a relaxing bath, watch a movie, start a new hobby, or enjoy the outdoors. It is good for you to enjoy yourself and okay to laugh and