Katherine Chemodurow Kelley, MD
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Katherine Chemodurow Kelley, MD
Grief and Children: How Adults Can Help Kids Process Loss
At some point, we all experience a loss and have an emotional reaction to it, called grief. Although the death of a loved one is the type of loss most associated with grief, people can grieve other losses, such as the end of a relationship. The grieving process can be difficult and painful for anyone, and it can be especially confusing for children.
Helping a child through this process is challenging for any adult, and you may struggle to know how to help if you are also grieving. Although there is no single solution to help all families, understanding a few basic guidelines can help.
How Children Grieve
When children experience a loss, they may show intense sadness for a short while, then go off to play a few moments later. They may also show anger and confusion, or simply avoid talking about the loss altogether. While this is not how many adults grieve, it does not mean the child is “over it,” or doesn’t care.
It’s important to remember that children process loss in a different way than adults. The way your child grieves may be impacted by:
Their understanding of death or lack thereof
Confusion about the loss
Your family’s spiritual and religious beliefs
Their ability to express difficult emotions
In some cases, a child may not seem sad because they do not totally understand what’s happening. Other times, children may feel angry, as if someone died because they wanted to leave. Adults must be careful in the ways they talk about loss to kids, which can help them process their emotions in a healthy way.
Deciding Who Should Tell a Child About a Loss
The moment a child first learns about a loss will likely affect the way they grieve. When possible, have the person with whom they share the closest bond give the sad news. Typically, this is a parent or guardian.
If you tell a child about a loss which you are also grieving, be sure to express your emotions in a healthy way. It’s okay to cry and tell the child you’re sad about it as well. Doing so models health behavior and lets the child know that it’s okay for them to cry.
Talking to Children About Loss
When you talk to a child about grief and loss, the most important thing to remember is to keep the conversation ongoing. The child should know that they can come to you any time with concerns. The discussion should also be open so that they can contribute their thoughts and feelings as well. A few other basic guidelines include:
Be direct and honest: Though it may be difficult, avoid using euphemisms that can confuse children about what happened. For example, do not tell a child that a loved one “is taking a long nap” when they have died. Instead, gently let the child know that the person will not wake up.
“I don’t know” is okay: Even for adults, loss and death can be difficult to understand. If you don’t know the answer to a child’s question, feel free to say, “I’m not sure.” Not only is this honest, but it’s healthy for children.
Follow the child’s lead: Give children the basic information about what happened. For example, “Grandma died peacefully in her sleep.” Then, allow the children to ask any questions they might have. They may have questions at that moment or later. Just let them know you can answer their questions whenever they come up.
Demonstrate Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Both children and adults must find healthy ways to process the difficult emotions that grief brings. Although young children may not be able to talk about their feelings with the same vocabulary as adults, they can express their emotions in other healthy ways. Your family can try:
Painting or drawing together
Telling stories about the deceased
Making a scrapbook with photos of the deceased
Reading children’s books designed to help
Sometimes, expressing grief will involve crying or even yelling. You can set an example by showing your own grief. Furthermore, if your child is angry about the loss, show them to yell into a pillow. Just be sure to give your child and yourself the space you each need to cry as well.
Seeking Help for Childhood Grief
Even if you follow all the steps above, there’s a chance that the grief in your family may be too big a burden to bear alone. If you feel like your family could benefit from the help of a trained professional, be sure to reach out. Our compassionate and licensed therapists can help you and your child find healthy ways to live alongside your grief.
Disclaimer: The posts on this blog are for informational purposes only and do not replace direct care from your mental health care provider. Contact your mental health care provider for specific questions or concerns about your own mental health. All posts are copyrighted, and the views expressed on this blog are representative of the opinions of Pacific Coast Psychiatric Associates (PCPA) as an organization.