We parents have an innate desire to protect our child from the “negative” things of life, but when death and tragedy strike suddenly and openly, we cannot shield our children from the horror and grief that can follow. We worry how death and loss will impact these young minds because they don’t possess the life experience or coping skills of adults…and death is a hard enough concept for mature, healthy adults to wrap their minds around.
Children learn about death, loss and grief with the help of parents and the adults surrounding and being there for them. The general rules to follow when talking to your child or adolescent about death and tragedy are:
- Be honest. Answer the child and give them information at their level of understanding and without sharing every shocking detail (see Children and Grief By Ages and Stages below). Let them know that at any time they can feel safe to come to you with their grief thoughts and emotions.
- Provide comfort, support & security. In dealing with death, loss and grief, children need to know that they are cared for and will be protected to the best of your ability. They need to be reassured you and others will be there to help. They need to feel normal again. So try to keep them involved in as many normal childhood activities as possible.
- Don’t be ashamed to show your emotions. If you cry or your voice wavers in the discussion with your child, tell them that all people of all ages feel sad and grieve sometimes. Let them know by your example that healthy adults and children naturally grieve the loss of life, especially of people they love or are close to. Let them know that it is natural to be upset when tragedy strikes, and it is natural to feel sadness for others touched by tragedy.
- Remember you are modeling how a healthy, mature person shows their grief. Don’t believe the myth that “You have to be strong for the children.” They need to know that you are human and that humans grieving in a healthy way is natural.
At the same time, try not to overact to the situation. Grieve, but if you feel overcome at the moment, delay your discussion and find a place to grieve openly and without restraint away from the child.
- Observe your children for any signs of complicated grief. If you see extreme changes in your child’s behavior (lingering anger, violent play, trouble at school, regressing to behavior of earlier ages), sleeping patterns (inability to sleep through the night, sleeping too much, nightmares), eating habits (loss of appetite, overeating) or unexplained physical ailments (headaches, stomach aches, other pain complaints), you may want to seek professional help for you and your child.
To help you with knowing what your child’s level of understanding may be, here are some guidelines to use.
Children & Grief By Ages & Stages
Birth to age 3:
- View of Death – The child sees death as a loss, separation or abandonment. Death as a concept is hard to understand. There is no sense of permanence.
- Warning signs – Seek help if you see that the child is unresponsive, quiet, and sluggish, or changes sleep patterns. Conversely, a child can “act out” and become aggressive, hard to settle and irritable.
- Help the child – Keep schedules normal and remind the child of boundaries and limitations. The child needs to know that there are still consequences to his/her choices and behavior.
Ages 3 to 6:
- View of Death – At this stage, a child sees things as reversible and temporary. Death and life are hard to separate. They may believe in “magical thinking” and that their thoughts can cause things to happen such as a death, or bringing someone back to life.
- Warning signs – Children can exhibit nightmares, confusion, eating, sleeping, bladder or bowel problems or regression to behavior of an earlier state of development. Sometimes they may even seem to be unaffected by the death. Do not hesitate to get help as soon as possible if the child’s behavior changes and continues.
- Help the child – Talk about the death using books and stories. Explain to the child that they did not “think” the death or make it happen. Teach the child that what happened to the loved one is not controlled by his/her behavior.
Ages 7 to 8:
- View of Death – Children start seeing death as final at this age. The concept for many kids is that death happens to the old but not to someone their age. Therefore, when death occurs to someone they love (especially someone they consider “not old”), many questions will emerge about death.
- Warning signs – Children may have problems in school or they may become aggressive, quiet, clingy, or think they have numerous health problems. Behavior like not feeling safe sleeping in their own bed is common. Always be honest with children about the death and their emotions surrounding the loss. Encourage them to talk and take what they say seriously. Again, do not hesitate to seek help if their behavior changes and continues.
- Help the child – Talk about the death in an open and honest manner. Encourage the child to express their feelings in creative ways – through drawing, writing or story telling. If the child asks complicated questions, answer them fully. At this age the child is able to handle deep concepts and generally has a healthy curiosity.
Ages 9 and up:
- View of Death – By now the child understands that death is going to happen. By age 12, children know that death is final and irreversible. They not only know it can happen to anyone else, but it can also happen to them.
- Warning signs – Children may exhibit a wide range of feelings/behavior such as shock, denial, anxiety, fear, anger, depression and withdrawal. Their reactions begin to be much more like an adult except they may act out their grief in behavioral changes at home and/or school. Take their behavior and expressions seriously. Do not hesitate to get help if their behavior changes and continues.
- Help the child – Talk about the death openly and honestly. Answer their questions completely to meet their needs. Be forthright about your own emotions. Encourage them to talk and listen patiently. Do not try to correct their feelings. Encourage the child to interact with other children their age in order to receive encouragement and support during their grief.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT, author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookstore. Available now for Nook and Kindle.