Guidelines for Parents Supporting a Grieving Child

Many parents’ first response is to protect their child from the topic of death. The way adults, and parents especially, express their emotions has a great impact on the child’s ability to express their feelings because of modeling. If the surviving parent is not able to mourn, there is no role model for the child. A closed environment stops the grief process. Many times the surviving parent finds it too difficult to watch his or her child grieve. They may be unable to grieve themselves, or unwilling to recognize their child’s pain.

In a closed environment as noted above, a child’s feelings can become denied and expression of these feelings withheld. The surviving parent might well become an absentee parent because of his or her own overwhelming grief, producing feelings of abandonment and isolation in the child.

Certain characteristics of the parent-child relationship place the child at risk for later depression. Having empathetic, affectionate, and warm parents, who also allow a child to be independent and autonomous, has been found to protect individuals against depression in adulthood. On the other hand, having cold, indifferent, and rejecting parents, who are overprotective or overly intrusive, has been found to be related to the development of depression. (Haine, Ayers, Sandler, Wolchik 2008).

Providing information is key as it may decrease thoughts that can lead to serious adjustment problems (e.g., feeling responsible for the death) and support children’s feelings they may not understand.  The warm factual approach in explaining death and supporting their grief is far more valued than lecturing about the subject or telling children they do not understand. Be open and honest in your answers and if you don’t know an answer, it is all right to say, “I don’t know, but we’ll find out together.” Avoid half-truths, clichés and jargon and do not go into lengthy explanations about the death; simple direct answers are best.

Keep in mind that children’s reactions depend upon their age, personality and coping style.  Some children want to talk about the details, some are quiet and concerned, some may show an increase in their activity level, and some may prefer to get along with business as usual. Your child will tell you when it’s time to talk, though it’s important to be ready to fully listen.  If you tell the child, “Not right now,” or “We’ll talk about it later,” the child may interpret that their feelings are not important at that time, and they may not be willing to share later.

Remember not to tell your child what to feel or for how long. Some parents may say things like, “You’ll feel sad for a very long time,” and then when a child catching themselves laughing or smiling, they may then feel guilty that are not acting sad all the time. It’s also important not to overreact or criticize your child’s feelings.  Give them permission to feel as they do, though encourage healthy expression of these feelings.

Be cautious not to tell children how well they are doing in their grief with statements like, “She’s been so brave, since her daddy died,” or “He’s doing so well; he hardly ever cries.” Children may then strive to “be brave” or “rarely cry” and internalize or stuff their feelings.  These feelings will always explode, often at the least unexpected times.

If the death received media attention, monitor exposure to news events and limit access if necessary.  Repeated viewing by young children can be confusing, causing them to believe that the events keep occurring.  For older children overexposure can be overwhelming and leave them feeling helpless. Be mindful of how issues are discussed with and near children.  Prejudice, violence, stuffing feelings and so forth should not be encouraged as a way to solve problems or detach from them.  Seeking to place blame or to exact revenge does not repair hurt feelings or sadness.

Your physical presence is crucial, regardless of how overwhelmed you may be in your own grief. If your child has experienced the death of one of their parents, a child usually fears that their surviving parent may also die.  Never promise a child that you will not die; it’s a promise that is impossible to keep. Assure your child that your health is fine, and they will be taken care of.  Don’t be surprised if your child bugs you to see the doctor more often, quit habits (e.g., smoking, drinking too much, riding a motorcycle without a helmet) or becomes obsessive about what you eat or exactly how long you’ll be at the store.

Encourage your child to talk about their loved one, and share memories, both the good and the ones that may not be so good. It’s important not to make the person who died larger than life in the child’s mind. Make sure your child has photographs or mementos, and allow children to pick special items to keep in their room or another safe place they choose.

Don’t be surprised is your child’s behavior regresses. It’s a common response, and usually does not become a long-term problem unless the child is left unsupported. Children who have had difficulty before the crisis may show a re-emergence of their problems either temporarily or over time. A child may need more reassurance than usual and it’s perfectly acceptable to modify things like bedtime.  The child may need a hall light on or a night-light in their room. They may ask for a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or other comforting item that they haven’t used in a long time.

Children may also refuse to sleep in their own bed.  It is certainly appropriate to allow your child to curl up and sleep next to you; however, having the courage to set boundaries appropriate for your family soon after the death is critical.

It’s not unusual for children to have some problems in school for several months after their loss.  Watch for a drop in grades, lack of attention, daydreaming and withdrawal from friends. Keep in touch with your child’s teachers, counselor, principal and coaches. These professionals are a secondary support system for your child. Consider giving your child concrete suggestions on how to keep their mind on tasks, how to tackle one problem at a time, or make lists for the child to remind them of the things they need to do.

Grieving children are more prone to illness such as colds, stomachaches, ear infections, flu, and eating disorders.  Be alert to your child’s physical needs and check in with the school nurse to inquire about visits during school hours.  Encourage balanced meals, exercise and rest.

If your family has experienced the death of a child, this loss is very difficult for surviving siblings to traverse.  They often want to “make-up” for the death of their sibling and try to “live up” to the family’s expectations of that child.  Be honest with surviving children, regardless of the circumstances, and reassure them that they are special. If a child has died of a long illness, surviving siblings can feel conflicted as they grapple with the death and also feel relief that their sibling is no longer in pain.  They can also feel “relief” that their family life won’t revolve around the hospital or siblings diagnoses.  This mix of feelings can lead to guilt and a host of other challenges.

If your spouse had died, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the many demands and responsibilities that double.  The parent typically moves closer to children after a spouse’s death, and their children often give them “a reason to go on living.” Children can try heroically to “hold family together” and protect adults, though don’t encourage children to fill some of the roles your mate fulfilled. Also, the parent who turns to older children for emotional and functional support may diminish their authority over them. Be patient with the time it takes for family members to redefine their roles.

If necessary, seek professional help for the family.  Support-based programs or individual/family counseling can help prevent long-term problems.  If your child is exhibiting “acting out behaviors” like significant anger, withdrawing from friends, problems in school, giving away possessions or mentioning suicide, using alcohol or drugs, or physical manifestations like a large loss or gain or weight, trust your instincts. There is no shame in having the courage to ask for help.

Most of all stay involved in the children’s lives and monitor their adjustment over time.  Understand that children grieve where they are developmentally and they will re-grieve as they grow. Be fully present with love and no matter how painful speak from your heart and not your head, which reassures your child and shows true empathy and active listening.

 (c) American Hospice Foundation (2009)