Grief can be devastating for anyone experiencing it, but sometimes it can be even more so for children, at worst affecting a child’s psychological development and possibly even his or her cognitive and physical development too. The negative impact of this can be minimised if the child lives in an environment that understands and supports the grieving process and is able to offer explanation of the child’s life experiences. Children who don’t receive sufficient help in resolving loss issues, can actually become psychologically ‘stuck’ at the age of the loss especially if it is due to the loss of their primary carer or a significant family member or friend. This is why some children regress to an earlier age in times of anxiety or stress.
Kids grieve differently to adults, and as children are very literal it is best to be direct with them about what has happened, especially if it is a death. They may not understand the concept, but don’t try to dress it up. Use the correct words. Don’t try to use other explanations such as Nanny has gone to sleep. This will confuse them, and it could be a scary thought that may even result in a fear of going to sleep. After all, if you think about it, it makes sense doesn’t it? Would you want to go to sleep if it meant you were never going to wake up? This is how children think. So, keep it simple, but keep it real.
Children will often copy your behaviour, so it is important to show your emotions, as it reassures children that feeling sad or upset is okay but over-reacting yourself will only teach your child unhealthy ways of dealing with grief.
Very often a child’s very first experience of death may be the death of a pet. This is sad, but actually a very good time to help them understand and come to terms with death. Don’t minimise this for them. Support your child to be able to say goodbye. Allow them to express their feelings and grieve. Don’t rush out and buy them a new pet as this will not allow time for the grieving process. Instead help them to understand about healthy ways to grieve and come to terms with loss.
Sometimes if it is a grandparent who had died, a child may also begin to worry if mum or dad might be next. This is quite common but can be overcome by simply explaining that you will probably live for a very long time yet.
Try to keep routines as normal. Children like routine. Make sure they are still able to do the things they enjoy doing and explain to them that it is ok to feel sad, but it is also ok to feel happy too, even when someone or something has died.
Encourage your child to express their feelings and to talk about them. This is just as important for children as it is for adults. You will need to make sure your child has the vocabulary required to be able to explore their feelings, so you may need to name some feelings for them. But there are lots of practical things we can do to help them through the grieving process and to explore feelings.
There is a wealth of material that can be used online or to print out and many games and books, both generic to deal with feelings in general and more specific to deal with a particular feeling or emotion including many on grief, sadness, loneliness and loss.
Here are some resource ideas.
But there are a couple of things I highly recommend for teaching children about emotions. There is a set of cards called The Bear Feelings Cards which I use all the time, but there are lots of similar feelings cards and games available.
And of course, being an ‘Ollie Coach,’ I use and highly recommend the Ollie and his Superpowers books for teaching children about emotions and how to understand and manage them. Start with the green book. You can order them at www.helpmychild.co.uk