How to help them cope!
While experiencing grief yourself is unpleasant, having to explain your child that a loved one is no longer present is quite challenging. Children have the same emotional response to losing a loved one as adults do, but how they express it is dependent upon their age. How do you know your child is grieving? What should you expect? At what point should you get them professional medical help?
Grief is when you undergo a sense of mental suffering or distress over the loss/perceived loss of something of value to you. For a child, this most often occurs with the loss of a loved one. This could be a human being or pet. They experience the emotions that go with the five stages of grief (denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) just as adults do. However, depending on your child’s age, the behaviors exhibited during each stage vary. For example, children who are preschool age view death as a temporary and reversible thing (this is reinforced by cartoon characters who die and come to life again). Whereas, school age (5 – 9 year olds) children start think more like adults, but believe that it’ll never happen to them or anyone they know. It is not uncommon for children to believe the loved one is still alive and be in denial for the first few weeks (if your child continues to deny the person has died, it can indicate that they are avoiding grief and this can be emotionally unhealthy in the long term). Adding to your child’s confusion, is that other family members maybe unavailable and not able to take care of the child because they are so overcome by their own grief. Even after your child accepts that the loved one is gone, they can have periods of sadness and/or anger intermittently over a long period of time. These often occur at unexpected moments. Anger can be directed at surviving family members and is typically seen as boisterous play, nightmares, irritability or a variety of other behaviors. Sometimes, children will act younger than they are while they are going through the stages of grief. Also, young children frequently believe that they are the cause of what happens around them..
How to Help Children Cope
It is challenging dealing with your own grief while trying to help your children deal with theirs. It is important to spend time with your child and encourage them to talk openly about their feelings. Answer their questions (even the hard ones) truthfully in an age appropriate manner. Listen to what they are saying without any judgements. Talk about and remember the loved one who died. If the child is too frightened to go the funeral, don’t force them to go. Instead, help your child remember, honor and say good-bye to the loved one in a way that they feel comfortable with (lighting a candle, saying a prayer, making a scrapbook, looking at photographs, telling a story, etc.). Respecting the difference in grieving styles between your child and yourself or other children is important to making your child feeling comfortable to talk about their grief. Also, try to give your child choices whenever possible and if needed, allow them to take a break from dealing with everyone else who is grieving. Sometimes, children have serious problems dealing with grief and need the help of medical professionals.
When to Get Children Medical Help to Deal with Grief
Just as adults have difficulty dealing with grief, so can children. Some signs to look up you’re your child may need help coping are: extend period of depression (meaning child loses interest in daily activities/events), acting much younger than age for extended period of time, excessively imitating the decease loved one, inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone, repeated statements of wanting to join the deceased loved one, withdrawal from friends and/or sharp drop in performance/refusal to attend school. If your child is having any of these signs, you should seek help from a medical professional sooner rather than later.
Grief is difficult to deal with when you’re an adult, but it is even more so when you’re a child. With some time and guidance, your child will be able to cope. If you need some assistance in how to help your child, speak to a medical professional. If you would like further information about coping with grief, please visit The Dougy Center (The National Center for Grieving Children and Families) at www.dougy.org