Lorri Optiz, MA, a New Jersey bereavement counselor, was asked: “Do children suffer grief from the loss of a loved one in the same as adults?” Her answer is insightful.
“The effects of unresolved grief on children can be devastating. From a child’s perspective, the experience of loss is not only overwhelming emotionally, but affects cognitive functioning as well. They may receive unclear explanations or no information at all about why these losses have occurred. They may have little or no time to develop a trusting relationship with the bearer of bad news; thereby suspicion develops, and confusion about the details may play a role in the ensuing grief process. From a developmental perspective, young children lack the verbal capacity to express their grief, often leading to internalized emotions, which in turn can lead to somatic symptoms. The keys to helping children through their responses to loss are skilled and understanding caregivers and time to heal.”
While no one can protect a child from loss, significant adults in a child’s life can help him/her process their grief. Here are five ways.
1. Respond in ways that are developmentally appropriate. A child of three or four thinks differently than one who is 10 or 11. For very young children, simple, short statements are best. For those who are older, a brief conversation about death, loss and feelings are helpful.
2. Be honest and direct. It’s best to avoid euphemisms such as “Granddad is on a vacation” or “uncle James went to sleep.” This can be confusing for children who view the world literally. Hearing these kinds of euphemisms can leave a child frightened of falling asleep or leave him/her waiting for granddad to return from vacation. Use truthful words such as “dead, dying, died, buried, cremated.”
If a younger child wants to know what “died” means, honestly say: “When someone dies, it means that their body stopped working.” Attempting to offer a less blunt explanation may sound less final but can result in confusion for the child.
3. Maintain routines. Even though your grief may be deep and painful, try to maintain family routines. Familiarity is very comforting for a child when there has been a death. A death is highly disruptive emotionally, so bring some normalcy back by following familiar daily routines. Consistency, continuity and care help children feel safe.
4. Offer reassurance. Like adults, children can feel vulnerable when a loved family member or good friend has died. Reassure a child that he/she is loved and will always be cared for. Offering reassurance can also mean allowing children to see you grieve. Children are not harmed by witnessing parents and other important adults cry or express sadness. While they may be upset initially, in the long run it is beneficial for them to see how elders deal with grief. By showing healthy grief emotions, adults become grief mentors for children. Continue to provide ample affection and reassurance to children that no matter how sad you feel, you still love them and will care for them.
5. Consult with a professional counselor. While most children will find ways of dealing with loss in healthy ways, some may not have the necessary coping mechanisms. When you sense a child is struggling, it may be the sign of adjustment disorder. In this case, a grief support group specifically for children is ideal. Frannie Gaeta, a social worker and bereavement specialist says: “Support groups can often seem less intimidating for children, and they can be very therapeutic because they can talk to other kids who are going through the same thing and are having similar thoughts and feelings. They don’t feel like they are alone in how they are feeling.”
However, if you feel a child could benefit from more individualized guidance, consult with your physician, school counselor, spiritual leader for a referral to a professional grief therapist.
Victor M. Parachin, M. Div., is a bereavement educator and grief counselor.
He is the author of numerous books about grief including The Lord Is My Shepherd:
A Psalm For The Grieving and Healing Grief.