We know that many visitors to our website are hoping to learn more about children and grief, whether their own family is dealing with a death or they are trying to better support a friend, student, neighbor, or counseling client.
We hope that you find these resources helpful.
Some General Questions You May Have
The good news is, you don’t have to do it alone. By coming to a support group such as the ones offered at The Children’s Room, or by attending our Parenting While Grieving series, you’re making an important choice to seek additional support for your child and for yourself. You’re also modeling that it is okay to talk with others about your loss and to seek support in this way. This is a big gift for your child.
You may find yourself tempted to prioritize your child’s well-being over your own, but getting support for yourself is a key part of supporting your child. Your capacity to care for your child at this very painful time will be greater if you’re taking care of yourself, too. Sometimes children, sensing their parents’ distress, may be reluctant to share all that they are thinking and feeling in hopes of protecting their parent from further grief and burden. Finding places where your child can talk about his or her experience of loss is critical. Groups at The Children’s Room, family, friends, clergy, and mental health professionals may all be resources for your child.
We hope that being together with other parents at TCR, all of who are dealing with the layers and complexities of losing a spouse or a child, will be a support to you.
Some common reactions children may have following the death of a loved one:
- Having head/stomach aches
- Telling the story of how the person died again and again
- Not being able to talk about the person or the death
- Feeling helpless and powerless
- Having trouble sleeping/being scared to go to sleep/wanting to sleep a lot
- Feeling sad and crying a lot
- Feeling guilty: “It was my fault,” “I could have prevented this.”
- Feeling angry, confused, frustrated, and/or quick to get into a fight
- Being afraid to be alone and not wanting to stay home alone
- Withdrawing from friends or not wanting to go out as much
- Dreaming about the death, having nightmares about the person and death details
- Wanting to be with the person who died
- Finding it difficult to concentrate on work or school
- Worrying about, “Who is going to die next?”
What does death mean to children?
Children typically understand death very differently from the way adults do. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon and video game characters who die and come to life again Children between five and nine or ten begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. It is often not until children are nine or ten that they may be able to begin to comprehend that death is final, irreversible, and will happen to everyone. Regardless of their age, an important part of what can help a child understand what has happened is receiving direct, accurate, and age-appropriate information from parents or other caregivers.
Why won’t they talk about it?
Children’s grief shows up in a variety of ways. Many children are unable to just sit with their feelings, and may be very physically active in the way they grieve. This is totally normal! Young kids may not verbalize what’s going on for them, and may attempt to continue “business as usual” or act like nothing unusual has happened. This may be a way of trying to keep overwhelming feelings of shock, confusion, and grief at bay. A grieving child may be less able to pay attention in school, and more likely to act out. It is crucial to understand these behavioral changes in the context of mourning – your child may not be being “bad,” but grieving.
I never know how she’s going to act.
Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.
Why is he so angry?
The person who has died was essential to the stability of the child’s world, and anger is a natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviors. Often the child will show anger towards the surviving family members.
Having had a loved one die may have been your child’s first personal experience of the death of another person. As a parent or guardian, you may find yourself having to answer many difficult and painful questions, both about this specific death, and about death in general.
Children are curious, and will probably be trying to understand what has happened and what it means even as they are grieving. You may be unused to talking about death, particularly with your child. But death is an inescapable fact of life, and it is important that we let our kids know it’s okay to talk about it.
By talking to our children about death, we may discover what they know and do not know, and find out about any misconceptions, fears, or worries they may have. We can then help them by providing needed information, comfort, and understanding. Talk by no means solves all problems, but without talk we are even more limited in our ability to help.
There are no right words to use when talking with your child about death; the tone and manner of the communication are the important things. As much as possible, children should be told about the death of their loved one in familiar surroundings, gently, and with love and affection.
Your child may have questions for you about what happened, what it means and what will happen to them. We encourage you to explain death in basic terms. Be honest and direct. Here are some ideas: “Died” means the person is not alive anymore. Their body has stopped working. “Died” means they cannot talk, breathe, walk, move, eat or do any of the things that they could when they were alive.
If you have religious beliefs that help explain what happens when somebody dies, you may wish to share them with your child. Remember that young children can be very literal, and that, despite our best intentions sometimes our words can be frighten ing or confusing. “If heaven is up in the sky,” some children have wondered, “Why are we burying Aunt Suzie in the ground?” Or, “If I go up in an airplane, can I see my baby sister who’s in heaven?” When unknowing adults say, “Your daddy is in heaven watching over you,” they usually mean to be reassuring, but to a child, those words might suggest a spy who sees and knows everything that the child thinks and does.
On the other hand, you may not hold beliefs that offer any explanation or comfort in the face of death. The temptation may be to present a simple story in hopes of soothing your kids’ fears. However, children often quickly detect inconsistency and dishonesty, however well-intended.
Share honest religious convictions, but be prepared for further questions. It’s often more helpful to answer a child’s question s about death with, “No one knows for sure, but I believe…” Saying “I wonder about that, too,” is also a way of keeping the com munication open.
For a child who’s lost a parent, part of what allows an ongoing bond and relationship with the deceased is having gotten clear and accurate information about the death to begin with. This basic openness about the details of the death on the part of the surviving parent and the child sets a tone of openness that will help the child be with and move through grief. Finding ways to be with other parents who are also facing the unique challenges of raising grieving children can be a wonderful support. Parents who meet together at The Children’s Room often find that the opportunity to share their journeys with one another is very helpful.
During difficult times there are opportunities for children and adolescents to develop and strengthen coping skills that will help them throughout their lifetime.
Adults can help children and teens by:
Providing a safe place for children to share their feelings and concerns in a nonjudgmental environment. Listen, Listen, Listen. We can be supportive as each child finds their own unique coping skills and ways to express themselves.
Providing truthful and age-appropriate information about the specific situation. Every situation is unique and raises specific issues. Be honest with children and teens about what has happened and what is happening. This builds trust.
Letting children know that there is nothing too sad or too difficult to share with a trusted adult. “We are here for you. You are not alone.”
Being there for them as they experience their pain rather than trying to shield them from pain.
Acknowledging and validating all feelings. Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time.
Allowing children and teens to ask the questions that they want answered; this helps clear up misconceptions and misinformation. They need us to listen to them carefully so we can understand how they are feeling and they need.
Being authentic and sharing our feelings with them. Children learn by watching how we deal with stressful life events. They pick up cues from us and the other adults in their lives.
Listening to children’s fears and worries. Magical thinking can reflect an inappropriate sense of responsibility for what is happening. Watch out for the “If onlys.”
Setting limits. We need to help our children and teens express themselves with positive and healthy coping skills. Care, consistency and continuity give our children a sense of safety.
Encouraging our children to help others. We all feel better if we can do something.
Myth: The pain of loss will go away faster if you ignore it.
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain will only make it worse in the long run. Finding safe and comfortable settings for the expression of your feelings—with trusted friends or family, in a support group, with a counselor, through artistic expression —is an important part of taking care of yourself at this trying time. Sometimes you will need to do or think about other things. Finding the balance of attending to your pain and taking care of yourself while attending to other things is what is important.
Myth: It’s important to “be strong” in the face of loss.
Fact: Feeling sad, frightened, angry or lonely are some normal reactions to loss. Crying or voicing these feelings doesn’t mean you’re weak — it just means that you’re sad, frightened, angry or lonely. In fact, being honest about what you’re feeling often requires great strength! Some of the people you typically rely on for support may not know how to respond to these parts of your experience, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Being honest about how you feel will help you and may help make it okay for someone else to do the same.
Myth: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t feeling sad enough about your loss.
Fact: Crying is a normal response to loss, but it’s not the only one. There is no single right way to feel, and no single right way to express what you’re feeling. Depending on the circumstances of the death and your relationship with the deceased, you may feel many different feelings – sadness, fear, anger, relief, regret—and your feelings will evolve over time. Let yourself feel what you feel, and turn to those supports who can accept you as you are.
Myth: Grief should last about a year.
Fact: There’s no roadmap or schedule for grief—it’s different in for each person, and for each loss. The loss will be part of your life from now on. Your feelings about it will change over time, but this will not be a linear and orderly experience. Be patient with yourself, and be wary of messages, however well intentioned, that there’s a “right way” to grieve.
Myth: Moving on with your life means you’re forgetting the one you lost.
Fact : Contrary to the widespread notion that “getting over” loss depends on “letting go” of the person who died, many people find that successfully going on with their lives includes finding a new way to feel connected to the person who died. This means different things to different people, but the point is that moving ahead in your life isn’t a betrayal of the person who died, and staying emotionally connected to the person who died doesn’t mean you’re not “moving on” correctly.
Myth: Friends can help by not bringing up the subject.
Fact : Friends can help a griever by being with the griever where he or she is. People who are grieving often struggle to find people willing to talk about it, so asking open-ended questions and sharing your own memories of the person who died can communicate that you’re a safe person to talk to about this huge life experience.
More Information & Books
Bereavement researcher Phyllis Silverman, Ph.D, is a founding TCR board member. Her website includes the article “When a Parent Dies,” drawing on her work as Co-Principal Investigator and Project Director of the Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital Child Bereavement Study. In addition, Phyllis writes a blog about raising grieving children for Psychology Today magazine.
For an extensive list of books that you might find helpful and informative, you can download Wherever You Are, We’re There For You: A National Bereavement Resource Guide, compiled and provided by the New York Life Foundation and The Moyer Foundation.
Other Support Group Resources
If you are looking for a support group, but are not close to our Arlington, Massachusetts, location, visit the National Alliance for Grieving Children website to find a center near you.