Grief is a complex emotional process for anyone, regardless of their age or stage in life. But exploring the reality of death with a child or teenager can prove particularly challenging. It’s hard enough to know how to help yourself, much less determine what to say and how to comfort a child coping with grief. So where do you start?

The process of learning to live with the reality of loss looks different for every individual, so children will exhibit different reactions depending on their personality, age, and developmental stage. Because many children are new to loss, you might be surprised when they have a grief reaction to an individual with whom they weren’t particularly close. It’s important to validate this emotional process, rather than simply advising a child to “get over it.” It’s important to be as patient as possible, and to look closely for changes in behavior and mood.

Your child might be having a particularly difficult time with the grieving process if you notice any of these behaviors:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Regression to younger behaviors, such as separation anxiety
  • Talk about wanting to be with the deceased person
  • Lack of interest in playing with friends
  • Changes in grades or school behavior
  • Loss of interest in activities that once excited them

Because a child is constantly learning and growing, they might revisit the grief process several times. If they’ve lost a close friend or relative, they might feel sad or nostalgic at different milestones in life, such as birthdays, graduating, going to prom, etc. Though they might find positive ways to gain meaning out of the loss and feel proud of the person they have become, this does not diminish their emotions. You can model this type of meaning-making by sharing your own feelings and memories at holidays or important occasions. Let’s explore a few more positive strategies for helping a young person through this process.

 

Use Creative Expression

Though many young people may feel comfortable simply talking about the loss of a loved one, others might benefit through creative means other than discussion. Children can express their emotions about the loss they’ve experienced through actions such as playing with dolls or figures, creating or listening to music, painting or drawing, or even writing down their thoughts and feelings. Meet a child where they are, and suggest alternative ways of expression if they’re not ready to talk. Many very young children may not have the verbal capacity to express their exact thoughts or emotions, so allow them the space and opportunity to find other paths for expression. However, it’s important never to force an activity on a child. Let them choose what feels right.

 

Find Opportunities to Build Relationships

When a child loses someone significant in his or her life, this is also an opportunity for them to strengthen existing relationships and perhaps to find new people who can provide support during grief. Perhaps they might find comfort and kinship among other children who’ve gone through the same loss, or an older sibling who can relate. Friends, family, teachers, coaches, counselors, and spiritual leaders can all provide support and be examples of resilience for a child.

Rather than suggesting any person can “replace” the person they lost, you can introduce the topic with a simple question. Consider asking, “Who do you think maybe knows how you’re feeling and would want to talk about it?” You might be surprised what relationships provide the most support for a grieving child.

 

Tell the Truth

Kids should feel comfortable asking any questions they want about grief and loss. But they might hesitate to share their feelings if your words and nonverbal behaviors indicate that you are uncomfortable. Also, if they sense that you are going to skirt the truth or distract them from their questions, they might adopt the belief that talking about loss is taboo, or feel that they have to make sense of loss on their own. Model honesty and openness about loss, and your child will emerge more resilient from the experience.

 

Finally, it’s important to consider enlisting support from your community. You should never have to feel that you’re alone in navigating the questions and behaviors of a young person who is grieving. Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor, a mental health professional, school counselors, and spiritual leaders. Engage friends and family who’ve gone through similar experiences. Consider what community groups and services might serve your family and your child.

Remember this. If you want your child to remember that he or she is never alone, you have to model for them that neither are you. Teach them that sometimes life is about leaning on people who can help you when you are grieving.

Last Updated: May 23, 2017