Unfortunately, the pain of loss is a part of life, and as much as we would like to, we cannot protect our children against the pain of loss. Throughout the past year of COVID, there has been a substantial loss of life, and many children will have experienced loss and grief first-hand. As parents or caregivers, we may not be able to ease their pain, but we can help our children to build healthy coping skills.
Grief is a very complex emotional process and not always understood in young ones. Children grieve very differently from adults and may go from crying to playing in a short period. We should never think that a child is not sad or has finished grieving simply because they seemingly prefer to play. Play is a vital activity for children that prevents them from being overwhelmed by grief and helps them come to terms with their loss. Some children may relapse in terms of their sleeping and eating patterns or reverting to behaviour, such as baby talk or bedwetting. This is all part of the process.
Children should be able to express their emotions freely. If they are too young or unable to communicate their feelings verbally, then other measures can be employed to help them. These measures may include activities such as drawing pictures, paging through photo albums, creating a scrapbook about the deceased, playing with toys or even telling stories to help them through difficult times. It is important to meet the child in their cycle of grief and never force an activity on them.
It’s not easy to know what to expect from a child regarding their reaction to a death. A safer route is not to volunteer too much information but rather to answer their questions honestly and only when asked. Death may not be fully understood in its permanence by some children. It is best not to use unclear expressions such as “they’ve gone to sleep” when someone has passed away, as this may make the child scared of sleeping and interfere with a perfect opportunity to help them develop healthy coping skills.
It is always a good idea to teach children about the cycle of life when they lose a pet. Children grow up with a replacement theory, if the doggie dies, we are quick to replace the pet with one having the same features. This could create the perception that everything in life can be replaced.
If a child loses someone important to them, this provides an opportunity to build on other existing relationships with people who can provide a measure of security and comfort without replacing the person who died. You may even be surprised by the answer you receive from a child if you ask them whom they think would know how they feel or whom they would like to talk to during their sadness. Teachers, siblings, friends, spiritual leaders and counsellors all have a role to play as an example of the strength of character.
When it comes to being present at the funeral, it may be best to ask the child if they want to attend after gently explaining what will happen. Some children will find that the funeral brings closure, while others will reject even the thought of attending. It is important not to force the child into anything that they do not want to do, even if they change their minds at the last minute. The child needs to understand that a funeral is a sad occasion and that the body of their loved one will, in most circumstances, be present in a coffin. We do, however, recommend that children attend the funeral of a loved one. How else will children learn about death? They might not have been able to visit their loved one in hospital, so they need to experience the emotions expressed at a funeral, listen to the eulogies and hear the praises.
Here are some steps that you can use to help guide a child through the grieving process:
- Explain the death to the child in simple terms, but with honesty and stay focused on the single incident. The age of the child will determine how much information you can impart.
- Saying goodbye may help the child gain closure by attending the funeral, but they may not want to do this.
- If a loved one’s death is imminent, a hand-drawn card or a quick goodbye visit (if the loved one is not looking too sickly) may be considered.
- Help reduce the child’s anxiety by naming their emotions to help them to understand their feelings are normal. Explain and use words such as sad, confused, lonely, angry, hurt to help them understand their feelings. Young children may benefit a lot from colouring-in and drawing their feelings.
- Help them to create a memory book where they can add pictures and other items that remind them of their loved one. In sad times, the child may also page through this book to bring them comfort.
- Provide solace by explaining how daily life will continue. This will help young children avoid excess worry about how other disruptive life events may affect them.
- Avoid understatements that may unintentionally scare children. Stick to simple facts and remind them of special memories that can be kept in their hearts or kept alive by talking about the deceased or by looking at pictures of them.
Once children have accepted their loved one’s death, they will probably still display sadness over special holidays and anniversaries – just as adults do. This is normal, and you will need to let them know that they can do this.
To be able to take care of a child or children who are grieving, it is essential to take care of yourself; otherwise, you will be unable to look after anyone else correctly. If you need some help, call a friend or a family member, eat healthily, get enough rest, and minimise stressful situations. You can only give your best if you are feeling good.
The most important thing to remember is that the child must never feel that they are alone. It is important to teach them that life is not all about coping by yourself; there are friends and family to lean on in difficult times.
However, it is necessary to read the signs in children who may be having severe problems with grief and loss over an extended period of time. Some of these include;
- A loss of interest in daily activities and events over a long time.
- Sleep and appetite changes over a prolonged period.
- Intense fear of being alone, which doesn’t diminish.
- Acting much younger for an extended period.
- Excessively imitating the dead person.
- Talking to or seeing the deceased loved one for an extended period.
- Repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person.
- Withdrawing from friends.
- A clear drop in school performance or even refusing to attend school.
If exhibited over an extended period of time, these signs point to the fact that professional help from a play therapist, child psychologist or another mental health professional may be required. These professionals will assist the child through the grieving process if the parent or caregiver is not able to.
For more information about Children and Grief, follow our Sonja Smith Funeral Group Pinterest Board How to Help Children Cope with Death.