How to help a Grieving Child or Teen
The death of a family member or close friend can present some of the most difficult challenges a family can face. Loss is painful, and as parents we strive to protect our children from such painful experiences. But when someone important in a child’s life has died, children and teens need the support and assistance of adults.
They deserve the assistance of supportive adults to help them manage their feelings. The following suggestions are offered to assist you in the task of helping your child or teen to mourn in a healthy way and continue life with hope and confidence.
What You Can Do:
- Tell the child about the death as soon as possible, using clear, age-appropriate language. Provide factual information about the cause of death without going into unnecessary detail.
- Explain that death means the body no longer works, and the person who died cannot come back.
- Reassure the child that his/her feelings, thoughts or behavior did not cause the death.
- Expect and accept that your child may react in a way that is uncomfortable for you. Anger, curiosity, an apparent lack of feeling, and even laughter are not uncommon reactions upon hearing about a death and are simply the child’s attempt to cope with this information.
- Invite questions and be prepared to repeat information you have given. It takes time for children to absorb the reality of death. Be patient and repeat information even if the same questions have been answered many times before.
- Explain the plans for the visitation and/or funeral and encourage the child to participate in some way. When children are given information about what to expect and are accompanied by a supportive adult, they can benefit from inclusion in the funeral ritual.
- Model appropriate grief behavior for children by labeling your feelings and showing your emotions within reasonable limits.
- Anticipate that your child may need extra attention and reassurance for a time. Nighttime fears, separation anxiety, temper outbursts, and regression to younger behavior all are common reactions. Reassure your child that you are still a family, you will get through this together, and there will always be someone to love and care for him or her.
- Maintain routines as much as possible at home and school. Children are reassured by predictable and familiar routines such as bedtime, chores, homework, etc.
- Maintain appropriate limits and expectations regarding behavior. Grieving children are likely to act out their angry feelings in negative ways, but they need to know that the adults in their life will continue to help them control their behavior and find more appropriate ways to express their feelings.
- Inform the child’s teacher and/or day care provider of the death and its impact on your child. Maintain communication with them so that you can work together to help your child adjust to the loss.
- Allow and encourage your child to express feelings through play, art, writing, or other expressive means. Such activities can help the child manage overwhelming feelings.
- Nurture memories by talking about the person who died, keeping a photo album or memory book, and acknowledging special occasions. Children need to maintain a connection to the people who were important in their life.
- Find ways to commemorate the deceased person’s life with your child. Meaning can be found in such diverse activities as planting a garden, cooking a special meal, or donating to a charity, teaching the child that life has meaning and is not forgotten.
- Be understanding and comforting to your child for as long as necessary. For children, grief is experienced intermittently over time, with periods of mourning separated by periods of “normal” functioning. A happy, playful child may still be a grieving child who needs your support.
- Expect that your child will re-experience feelings of grief as he or she matures. Special occasions such as holidays, birthdays, seasonal traditions and developmental milestones often trigger renewed grief. Anticipating and acknowledging such reactions helps make them more manageable.
- Consider enrolling your child in a support group at Ele’s Place. Most children find great comfort in sharing their feelings and memories with other children their age who have experienced the death of a loved one. Ele’s Place programs are available at no cost in Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids. For more information, call:
Ele's Place - Ann Arbor (734) 929-6640
Ele's Place-Flint (810)232-3040
Ele's Place - Grand Rapids (616) 301-1605
Ele's Place-Lansing (517) 482-1315
What Not to Do:
- Don’t lie to your child about the cause of death. Children generally learn the truth eventually and may be confused and angry about the deception.
- Don’t use unclear euphemisms and platitudes when talking about the death. For example, saying that the person who died has been lost, is sleeping, or has gone on a trip may be misunderstood by children who interpret such statements literally. Likewise, statements such as “God needed him” may be more frightening than comforting.
- Don’t force your child to participate at the visitation or funeral in ways that are uncomfortable for him or her.
- If you have more than one child, don’t expect them to grieve in the same way, or to have the same feelings you have. Grief is a uniquely individual experience that does not follow a predictable pattern.
- Don’t expect your child to “tell” you how he or she is feeling; look instead for behavioral signals. Children often do not have a well-developed emotional vocabulary but do show their feelings through their behavior.
- Don’t set artificial time lines for when you or your children should be through your grief. The loss of a loved one becomes part of your personal and family history.