Important Things to Know About Grieving Children

Children want to share their experience, though need permission to do so.

Children, adolescents and teens all want to share their feelings, though they often believe adults won’t understand.  Don’t impose your beliefs on children and don’t tell them what they should feel.

Don’t say “I know how you feel,” or tell a child how to feel.

It is possible to relate to a child’s feelings and situation, but don’t take over those feelings.  If you have had a similar experience, sharing it with the student can be positive, though always remember this is the child’s journey and not yours. Don’t push empty reassurances on the child.

Ask permission before sharing thoughts, feelings and details the child has      confided in you.

Children can sense when their trust has been broken, and they often overhear adults talking.  The grieving child, classmate or friend can misinterpret what they’ve heard. Subsequently misinformation and rumors can be fueled.  Ask the child what they feel comfortable sharing with their classmates about the death.

Children of specific age groups do not grieve in the same way.

Each child is unique and each child had a unique relationship with the deceased. Allow the child the freedom to express their feelings in their own way and in their own time.  A child’s emotional investment may differ radically from a sibling’s.

A child’s apparent lack of feelings when told of a significant death does not mean they don’t understand or care.

Children want to avoid emotional pain.  When told of the death of a significant person, they might pretend that it did not happen because they can’t absorb all that pain at once.  Children often try to play so it won’t hurt so much.

Bereaved children often engage in “acting-out” behavior to get our attention.

Explosive emotions and regressive behaviors are a way for children to teach us about their underlying needs for safety, security, information and trust.

Grief is on-going and doesn’t end at a specific time.

Healing the heart takes time. The grieving child can’t hurry up and get over it.  The child will always miss the deceased and grief can resurface. Regardless of how much time has passed the child should be allowed to express their feelings.

School is important to a grieving child.

A caring adult’s presence and the school setting help to provide order, security and some stability in the child’s life.  When the child returns to school, set aside time to talk.  Use the name of the person who died.

Let the child lead.

Answer questions as honestly and simply as possible. If something is not clear, let the child know.

It’s important to embrace a variety of modalities when working alongside grieving children. 

Utilize the multiple intelligence model; a classical learning model, in which there are seven different intelligences including: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial-visual, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Also consider left-brain (problem solving, intentional) and right-brain (intuition) approaches. If the helper can gauge activities based on a child’s learning style, the more effective and better received the activity is likely to be by the child.

Children do not grieve in an orderly and predictable fashion.

Children generally grieve in bits and pieces, and they cannot sustain grief the same way adults can. Children grieve, and then move away from the pain. When children feel vulnerable, it’s common for them to quickly shut down and move onto something else.

Grief can manifest itself in a variety of ways including: emotionally,      physically, socially, behaviorally and spiritually.

Acknowledge and accept these realities. Teach children how a significant death may impact them; however also remind them about positive choices.

Do not impose your own religious beliefs.

Regardless of how well intended, this can confuse a child.  If a child expresses religious ideas about death and their beliefs, it’s important to respect them.  If you’re working with a group, and the time is appropriate, children can share with each other what they believe.

Respond to grieving children at a feeling level as opposed to an intellectual      level.

Don’t rush to diagnose or “treat” the child. Children will give you cues through body posture, emotions in the face and repetitive themes in play and questioning. Patience will lead to a deeper understanding.

It’s important to determine where the child is developmentally and cognitively.

Learn about the factors and variables that can influence how a child may respond.  Children may lack the words to express their thoughts and feelings.

Children should be told the truth.

When adults try to protect children by using half-truths, misleading statements, or by telling  a lie, a child can sense a loss of trust.  This may also teach the child that one doesn’t always have to be honest when dealing with others.

There is no magical age or time to talk about death.

Teachable moments are present in everyday life.  Talk to children about animals that have died: the insect they saw on the sidewalk, a baby bird that fell from tree, an animal that was hit by a car, or a pet that died. Children’s literature is full of examples as well, as is everyday news media.

Give children permission to ask questions and encourage them to do so.

The youngest of children will ask repetitive questions, often of multiple people.  This is a child’s way of making sure the story and facts remains the same. Each time the story is repeated honestly, the child understands on a deeper level.

Acknowledge your own death history and personal beliefs as well as how these factors impact your interactions with grieving children.

Your personal story profoundly influences everything from your level of comfort to your intrinsic beliefs.  Make a commitment to yourself and the children you support by completing the Personal Loss History on page 11.  Invest the time not only to complete, but also to reflect on how your answers impact your support of children.

Know your own limitations, your comfort level and don’t try to do too much yourself.

It’s okay to tell a child that you’ve listened enough for one day, though assure them you can be available at other times. This will help ensure the child doesn’t internalize feelings of abandonment. Seek advice from others and utilize community resources.

Communicate to the child that you truly wish to understand their feelings.

Be patient, and don’t push. Meet the child where they are emotionally.  Children who are grieving don’t often trust easily. Words aren’t always necessary. A special look, glance or touch can reassure a child. If you promise a child something, ensure that you follow through.  If something happens and you can’t fulfill your promise, be honest with the child about the reason for this.

Give children permission to attend end of life rituals and participate if they      want to.

Help children understand what they will experience.  Ask the child what they believe will happen; his answer might surprise you.  Explain new words (e.g., casket, ritual, memorial service, cremation, or pallbearer). Encourage the creation of a special drawing or poem that can be buried with their loved one or displayed during services. Even the youngest child, who may not remember much, will remember being included, as they grow older.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

Children will not be destroyed by errors in judgment, though it’s important to acknowledge errors.

Acknowledge that young children have “magical thinking.”

Children often believe they have magical powers and need to create a reason for what has happened. Additionally children can believe that they caused the death or that their loved one is coming home.

Recognize that laughter and play are part of grieving.

Play is a child’s “work.”  Commit to meeting the child where they are on their own “playground of life.”

 (c) American Hospice Foundation (2009)