As parents and educators, our focus is to protect children, to shield them from distress and to create environments that foster their growth and development. While we usually manage to navigate the day-to-day situations and stressors that children face without too much difficulty, we are often at loss when faced with having to talk to children about death. How much do we tell them? Will they be able to understand? Will they get too upset? What if they show no emotion? When do we seek outside support?
While each child will be affected differently depending on their developmental age, their temperament, family situation, cultural and spiritual beliefs, and previous experiences with death, all children feel loss and grief. Research has shown that children can experience the loss of a pet, even a goldfish, as strongly as the loss of a person in their lives. They need the support of parents, teachers and other adults to be able to process their experiences and emotions and regain their sense of security.
Most important in helping children cope with grief is to listen and listen some more. Children of all ages need the space and permission to voice their feelings, their questions, their concerns and their fears. Follow their lead. Answer their questions honestly and accurately in language that is developmentally appropriate but don’t provide more information than what they are asking for. Pause the conversation if they are becoming upset and let them know that it is OK to show their feelings or to not show any feelings — everyone responds differently. Be prepared to answer questions multiple times, especially with younger children. Children typically do not tolerate strong emotions for an extended period of time and will return to play or focus on other activities. Expect their feelings or questions to pop up sporadically and be cognizant of anniversary reactions or revisiting of the grief when faced with other losses or setbacks.
Loss and grieving may trigger some regression in children — this is normal for a period of time. Other reactions may include increased fears, difficulty concentrating, academic challenges, and anger or depression. Provide support and reassurance. Grieving is a process and the progression may be different for each child. Getting back to a school and maintaining a regular routine can be helpful in providing a sense of security and in returning a sense of normalcy. If a child is still struggling after several weeks, it is advisable to seek outside support by contacting the school counselor or health care provider.
Several excellent resources are available that provide more information about grieving in children. We recommend the following:
Drs. Palmer & Dunn provide pediatric, adolescent, adult, and older adult neuropsychological and psychological services at their practice in Madison, New Jersey. They have spoken to the parent and student communities at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child on the topics of anxiety, grief and building grit.