Helping Children Through Grief
Minnell Tralle, Family Relations Specialist, 2005; reviewed by Kathleen Olson, Program Director-Partnering for School Success
The news of yet another tragic school shooting has affected this state deeply. We think of the lives lost and the young people touched by this violence and grief. As adults, we are bombarded with feelings of astonishment, sadness, fear and a deep sense of loss. Our minds are full of unanswered questions: Why did this happen? Could this have been prevented? Can this happen to my family?
As adults, we call on our past experiences with death to provide us with the coping resources that we need. We talk about it, sympathize with family and friends and gather more information. We understand our emotions surrounding grief and allow ourselves the time to heal and the permission to express these emotions.
Our children experience the same feelings of despair, sadness, helplessness, anger, anxiety, guilt, confusion and fear that adults do, but often don’t have the maturity and experience to understand, identify and express those feelings. As a result, the expression of their grief is different. Children alternately approach and avoid their feelings which results in periods of agitation followed by period of calm. Just when we think they’re coping, the agitation surfaces again. Their grief manifests itself in ways that are not always recognized as such and often misunderstood by adults.
Grieving children will express their emotions through a variety of behaviors depending on their age, their past experiences with death, personality, relationship with the deceased, their understanding of the cause of death, and the family communication structure. Grief will appear as verbal or physical outbursts/aggression; social withdrawal; school problems; somatic complaints such as headaches or stomachaches; sleep or eating disturbances; regressed behaviors such as thumb sucking, bedwetting, whining; nightmares; becoming a “hyper-good” child; fear; engaging in risk-taking behaviors; preoccupation with the deceased; thoughts of suicide; denial; and/or low self-esteem. Younger children may experience “magical thinking” in which they believe that something they said, did or thought is responsible in some way for the tragedy.
Children need support, understanding, information, reassurance, love and patience when grappling with the death of someone close to them. Parents and other significant adults can help children through their grief in a positive way. Here are some suggestions to help children cope:
- Model healthy reactions to loss by expressing your feelings and receiving support.
- Provide additional love, support and structure in your child’s daily routine. Be generous with hugs, kisses, and other signs of affection.
- Provide adequate explanations of the cause of death using correct terms.
- Include children in family discussions, preparations and rituals. Children need to learn how to cope with loss, not be protected from grief.
- Help children learn to recognize, name, accept and express feelings to avoid developing unhealthy defenses to cope with difficult emotions.
- Provide physical and creative outlets to reduce the stress level. Through the use of art materials, your child can express feelings and thoughts that might be considered negative and unacceptable.
- Talk with your child. Communication is a source of information, comfort and security.
- Do something nice for someone. Helping someone who needs us is a way of dealing with the powerlessness and helplessness we feel.
- Select good children’s books about death and grief. They can clear up misunderstanding and feelings for your child as well as help you to discuss difficult topics.
The hurt that death inflicts is one any parent would love to protect their children from. Since this is not possible, we need to look at ways that we can help and support our children through those difficult and confusing times.
- Children, Grief & Loss. Minneapolis, MN: Fairview Riverside Medical Center.
- Endings to Beginnings Curriculum. (1991). Minneapolis, MN: National Childhood Grief Institute.
- Samarzija, J., Myers-Walls, J. A. (1986). Helping children cope with stress. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.