How Can We Respond to the Grief of Children?

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

A widow with two small sons recalls:

I began to observe the boys and how they were about the death of their daddy. One day, several months after Lee’s accidental death, the boys and I were pulling into the driveway and the four-year-old suddenly asked, “Mama, what does accident mean? What’s an accident?”

Before I could answer, Jeremy, who is seven, said, “I don’t want anybody else to ever talk about Daddy in front of me again.” I answered, “Jeremy, anybody that wants to talk about Daddy is going to be able to talk about him anytime he feels like it. It’s a lot better for us to talk about it than it is to just sit and think about it.”

I went on, “We’re not going to pretend Daddy never lived, because we had happy times and we ought to talk about them and remember them. It will be especially nice if we talk about the good times, but we’ll talk about the bad times, too, when we remember them. And sometimes when we talk it will make us sad and we’ll want to cry. You’re going to see Mama cry. And it won’t be your fault that Mama is crying, and it won’t be Daddy’s fault. But if I feel sad, or if you and Danny feel sad about Daddy or anything else, it is perfectly all right to cry.”

I guess that really sank in, because a few days later we were putting up the Christmas lights…and they wanted me to hurry and turn them on. So we turned off all the lights in the house and just had the tree lights on. The three of us were sitting there in the living room looking at them and Jeremy spoke up and said, “Oh, Mama, this is so nice. If Daddy was here, he’d love it, ’cause he always liked the lights….”

I said, “You’re right, Jeremy. We wish he was here, but he’s not. And it’s all right for us to remember how happy it used to be.” It’s been several months now, and both of the boys talk about their dad. About six weeks ago Danny, the little one, came running into his grandmother’s kitchen and said, “You know, Grandma, what I really miss about Daddy is his wrestling with us.” So I know that the boys now feel ok about thinking about their dad and talking about missing him.
(Adapted from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld.)

Perhaps the most essential advice for adults helping children deal with loss is to communicate with them straightforwardly. Almost everyone agrees that children should be included in the mourning rituals. Experts urge us to remember that children experience many of the same fears as do adults: that they caused the death, that they are in danger themselves, that they have been personally abandoned and rejected. They may also be angry.

Those who study children and grief make suggestions like this:

Things to Do To Help Children Who Are Grieving

Deliberately set aside time and create the opportunity for the child to talk about the lost person. Be willing to use words like dead and died.

Prepare a scrapbook or photograph album with the child that commemorates life with the person who is now gone.

Make sure the child has a picture of the lost person nearby.

Listening

Often the best thing an adult can do is listen. Professionals say that rather than talking too much ourselves, we should encourage the child to talk. Asking questions that allow the child to remember is particularly useful.

Can you tell me a funny story about your dad?

Did you have a favorite time with your brother?

What do you love to remember about your mother?

It is important to remember that not every child will respond in the same manner. Adults have varying needs and ways of communicating, and the same is true of children.

A Few More Specific Suggestions

These suggestions from experts in children’s grieving can help ease the stress:

Find some alone time daily with the child. Be sure she or he knows this is a special time with you, to share feelings and emotions, or simply to sit quietly with your full, undivided attention.

Try not to “fix” situations but to listen instead.

Understand that children often respond to loss by “acting out,” becoming aggressive and displaying anger. Such responses are normal.

Encourage creative activities, such as art or exercise that will allow the release of energy and stress.

Be patient. It may take some time before a child opens up during a difficult time.

Related articles:

Helping Children Through Grief

• Helping a Child Deal with Loss

• Listening to What a Bereaved Child Needs

The Grieving Teen

Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Teen

When to Involve Children in the Bereavement Process


Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:

Loss of Our Assumptive World

The Value of Reminiscing

Do Men Grieve Differently from Women?

The Physical Stress of Grieving

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

Author's photo by Joey Bieber

Top image via stock.xchng / surfkid74

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Comment by Brittany S on July 3, 2015 at 8:44am
This is a great article. I lost my mom when I was a teen and as the oldest of three I watched my younger siblings handle it in different ways. Unfortunately we didn't have this kind of communication and it still is difficult and uncomfortable to talk about 10 years later. I relied on my relationship with God and prayed a lot. I remember literally feeling the peace that he promises at Philippians 4:6,7. It definitely helped to study the Bible and be comforted from the promises of the future. So I would encourage the adults to help their kids find satisfying answers about death. But as mentioned in your article it is still very important to talk about it and to remember the good times. For children this is a traumatizing event. I have not been the same since our loss. My family has not been the same. Having open communication helps young ones to process what has happened and helps them to transition into this change.

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