How to help children of all ages through grief
Grieving infants: many people think that because infants are too young to speak or understand complex ideas, they are too young to grieve. That's not true, according to grief experts. Infants may not be able to articulate it, but they feel the changes that come when someone dies. Their schedule may suddenly change, they miss the smell of that person, and their parents may act differently, not playing as much or being quieter.
This confusing time may result in changes to their behavior. You may notice differences in their eating, sleeping or bowel movements. You might find it harder to soothe your baby or get the child to laugh at play time. He or she may be less receptive to strangers and change.
What to do:
- Keep the baby's schedule as normal as possible.
- Try to keep the baby at home as much as possible, with the same people he or she is used to.
- Make every effort to soothe the baby with some extra cuddle time and calming words.
Two to six years old: death can be a confusing blow to the otherwise sheltered life of a young child. Parents who have previously tried so hard to protect them from life's tragedies suddenly have to explain them.
Young children generally struggle to comprehend three concepts surrounding death:
The first is the "non-functionality" of the body. Sometimes children can liken death to sickness. They think the person might be sleeping. They don't understand that the body that held the spirit of the person they loved is now lifeless.
Secondly, they can struggle to realize death's finality. No matter how many times cartoon characters get bonked on the head or run over, they always come back. Why can't their loved one do the same?
Lastly, children have yet to learn that everyone dies. They might believe that death can be avoided. They may return to the habits of a baby, revisiting behavior such as bedwetting, clinging and whining.
At this stage in life, children can take statements literally, so be careful with how you euphemize the situation. They can also be very self-centered about their thoughts, thinking that they may have affected the situation.
What to do:
- Be honest.
- Explain the difference between "very, very sick" and just "sick," as well as "very, very old" and just over 20, so that the child doesn't think everyone will die from circumstances that sound similar to how their loved one died.
- Use concrete words such as "dead" and "died" to give the child a clear idea of what happened.
- Explain clearly what death is and explain the feelings that go along with it. Tell the child it's OK to be mad and sad, but that eventually it will get better.
- Give him or her permission to cry when they need to (even for boys) and also play when they want to.
- Make sure your child knows he or she did not cause the death in any way.
- Involve them as much as possible in the funeral planning.
- Let the child know that you'll be there at the funeral, and also to support him or her in the months ahead.
Six to nine years old: at this point in life, children can understand the finality of death, but they don't understand their vulnerability to it. For that reason, they may be especially shocked if a peer dies. Children in this age group often think of death as something alive, a spirit or personification, such as the Grim Reaper.
Some think of death as contagious. Other children may tease or ignore a bereaved child at school, thinking that they can catch the death bug if they get too close. These children are at an age where they are very curious about the details of death. They're learning how bodies work, and they may want to know exactly how the person died and what will happen to the body.
It's best to be honest, yet reserved with the details. If you don't answer questions, they may get information from their friends, or may just imagine what they think happens, both of which can be inaccurate and more frightening than the real thing.
Make sure you explain death before going into other aspects, such as cremation or burial. They need to know that the body is no longer their loved one as they know it.
Lastly, it's OK to say you don't know something. Help your child find the answers they need.
What you can do:
- Ask the child what he or she knows about death, and correct any misconceptions.
- Be honest and use clear words such as dead and died.
- Ask about the child's fears and discuss them. Tell him or her it's OK to be angry.
- Explain the feelings that may come after a death.
- Put in some extra cuddle and hug time.
- Tell the child you love him or her and you're still a family.
- Involve the child in funeral planning.
- Understand they may turn death into a play game, such as burying their dolls.
Ten to thirteen years old: these kids are going out on their own, relying more and more on their friends and trying to fit in. Grieving can make them feel different and alone.
Tweens are also working out the right and wrong of life, and they may think they somehow caused the death by thinking ill of the person who died at one point.
At this stage in life, pre-teens understand the facts about death; they're more interested in the abstract ideas behind the "why." They may be wondering about the myths they've heard about death. Is there really a heaven? Could I die soon? Who decides who dies?
They're most likely to reach out to adults of their own gender. In their journey to becoming adult, they might try to emulate the characteristics of their gender. Rather than risk being called a sissy, boys may hold in their emotions to try to be a man. Girls may try to take care of everyone around them, perhaps at the risk of neglecting their own needs.
Even though they might spend time with their friends, it's still the advice and example of their parents that influences them the most.
What you can do:
- Explain the death in a detailed way to ease their curiosity and their fears.
- Explain the feelings that might come from their grief.
- Provide a journal to help them write and make sense of their feelings. Encourage them to write letters to the person who died and record their memories.
- Involve them as much as possible.
- Talk to the parents of the child's friends. Make sure they discuss the loss with their children, and give them advice on how to support a grieving friend
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Children: helping a child cope with death section helpful too.
Visit our Amazon store to find grief books for children.