Helping Children Triumph Over Grief

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Children are amazingly perceptive and attempts to shield them from grief may lead to confusion and anger. Where possible - for example, in the event of a terminal illness - children should be prepared for the passing of a loved one. Death should be approached openly and with honesty. It is important to remember that children are accustomed to adults providing solutions and they will have difficulty understanding why their loved one can’t be made well again, however, explaining the process of death, perhaps with the assistance of suitable books, is a healthier approach than denial.

Although naturally resilient, it should not be assumed that children will be unaffected by death. They may experience any or all of the following:
Anger – at the deceased person or at other people, perhaps even distant acquaintances that have not had to suffer through the anguish of losing a loved one.
Fear – of dying themselves or of other family members or friends dying.
Sadness – such deep sadness not experienced before may be unrecognizable. Grief can manifest physically in the form of stomach pain and headaches.
Confusion – especially if too young to understand the concept of death.
Guilt – that something they said or did caused the death of a person.

Older children should be allowed to choose their level of involvement with regards to attending the funeral. They may want to write a poem, say a few words, lay a rose on the coffin - scatter ashes in the case of a cremation - or wear a favorite outfit. This should be allowed where possible, even if it is not in keeping with the ideals of the funeral service.

Viewing of the body should be a personal decision and is probably not suited to younger children. It may be best if the loved one is remembered as when they were alive. If it is decided that the child will view the body, they should be carefully briefed as to what to expect. Caregivers should take care to avoid talking about death as if it is “like sleeping” or “going to sleep” because this can make a young child fearful of going to bed at night. They may believe that they will not wake again in the morning.

It can be stressful for guardians to cope with young children at such a solemn time. It is important therefore - if children are attending the funeral - that they are made aware of the process and what is expected of them. It should also be explained that there will be many sad people in attendance. Observing grieving adults can have a profound effect; children may be reluctant to see those people again at a later stage. It is important to explain that although people are sad now, they won’t always be unhappy.

If it is decided that children should not attend the funeral, encourage them to say goodbye in their own way perhaps by planting a special tree in the garden or letting go of a balloon covered with messages and drawings. For a close relationship, creating a special, private place where the child can go to remember the person who died can provide enduring opportunities for peace.

Involve older children in decisions surrounding the death of a close friend or relative. They may want a special keepsake and should not be overlooked when belongings are being given away. Keeping to familiar routine, especially for younger children, can be helpful but care should be taken not to push children into situations until they are ready. Allow older children sufficient time to grieve and avoid returning them to school too soon.

Encourage the child to talk about their feelings. Older children may find internet support groups helpful but on-line activity should be carefully monitored at this vulnerable time. If those closest are unable to provide support due to their own grief, the child should be comforted by a close adult friend, perhaps a favorite Aunt or Uncle. Where applicable, the school Counselor may be able to provide advice and indeed, the school should be kept informed so that allowances can be made for changes in behavior and grades. Understand that the child who has recently been confronted by death may regress for a short while – perhaps wanting a childhood toy or adopting attention-seeking behavior.

Help children release their anger appropriately. One approach could be to encourage hitting cushions. Another could be to have the child write a letter, or draw a picture to describe their anger. This can then be torn up or burnt.

Encourage the child to eat and drink well - physical health is often forgotten or given a lower priority. Above all, ensure that children understand that although this time is difficult to deal with and the loss will always be with them, the grief will pass.