Children's grief and how to help
It can be incredibly hard to watch a young person grieve for someone they have lost.
Your natural response is often to want to protect them from such big and distressing feelings. But grief is an expression of love for the person who’s died, and so it’s vital that those feelings are communicated and acknowledged. You can’t take away their loss, but you can provide gentle support along a young person’s bereavement journey.
At the start of Children's Grief Awareness Week, let's look at what may help.
What grief looks like
Remember that grief takes different shapes and forms for everyone. How children and young people experience loss varies greatly depending on the individual, their age and level of development, and how attached they were to the person who died.
While children will often feel grief just as deeply as adults, they may show it differently, and have varying ability to express their thoughts and feelings. Some children might show their feelings through behaviours rather than always having the words to describe how they feel. It’s important to see this acting out for what it is, and to use it as an opportunity to encourage them to express in words how they feel.
Some children will be openly upset from the beginning. Others, particularly younger children, may struggle to process the concept of death and almost seem not to react. This may be because they don’t understand the permanence of death, or just because they need a bit of time to process such an overwhelming concept.
It’s also common for children to move in and out of periods of grief. This is often referred to as puddle jumping, where children jump in and out of the intense feelings in a way that feels easier to manage for them.
Giving voice to big feelings
Supporting children and young people to articulate their feelings is important. For younger children this could include helping them to name what they’re feeling by explaining how you are feeling, giving labels for those big emotions like sadness, loss, anger, and confusion. Talking openly about how you are feeling also shows by example that it’s ok to be sad, to cry and to feel the full range of emotions when you lose someone you love.
For older children just providing the opportunity to talk about the person who’s gone and asking how they are doing might help them voice the feelings inside. Losing someone and facing the finality of death can prompt such a confusing and complex mix of emotions and behaviours in a young person. It can be so overwhelming that it can cause some people to clam up or seem to switch off. This is just an attempt to protect themselves from the sadness or confusion they are feeling and finding ways to talk will help.
Providing clear and honest information about what’s happened is important in helping a young person to process the event of death. For younger children that might mean using age appropriate language to explain what death means. Although it can be tempting to soften the blow by talking about people ‘going to sleep’, this can cause confusion for children who might worry about going to sleep themselves or not understand that the person who has died isn’t going to wake up. Younger children might talk or ask questions about death a lot, or integrate people dying into their play. This is just their way of processing what’s happened.
It’s always best to be honest, and to involve children and young people as much as possible in the rituals and gatherings surrounding death. While it’s not right for all children, attending a funeral or memorial service and seeing other people grieve for a loved one can be an important part of understanding and processing death.
Death isn’t always simple and relationships aren’t always straightforward. Your child may be grieving for someone but also feel angry, abandoned or somehow to blame. There might be questions about how or why someone died. It’s important to explore these feelings and provide the facts and information they need.
It is so important that adults take the lead in being emotionally literate and helping children to find their language of grief. This can be as simple as checking in regularly with the young person about how they are feeling, and talking openly together about the person who has died.
Telling stories about the person and their life, or sharing your memories of them as a family, will help to give voice to the love and sadness everyone is feeling. Sometimes assembling photos or objects into a memory box can help, and the process of doing this together creates time to talk about what has happened, ask questions and build memories.
Providing a place of safety
Losing someone they love can understandably make a child feel insecure about other important people in their life, fearing they might lose them as well. It’s natural for children to want to keep you close or to be anxious about being away from the home. Reassure children that other people aren’t going anywhere. You can do this without making false promises about people living forever.
While you can’t take grief away, you can focus on making your child feel safe - confident that other important people in their lives (including you) aren’t going to leave them, that it’s ok to feel whatever they’re feeling, that it’s safe to talk about their loved one, and equally that it’s ok not to be sad all of the time.
Accessing more support
Grief isn’t a one off event, it’s a journey, and a bumpy one at that with lots of twists and turns. Be clear that there’s no expectation that someone should ‘feel better’ by a certain point, or that they will continue to feel sad every day either. People need time to grieve in their own way, and most people will, in time, find ways to adjust to life without their loved one.
Occasionally children and young people struggle to cope with the emotional impact of losing someone, showing more extreme distress or developing unhelpful ways of coping.
If you are worried that your child might need some additional support, or just feel they would benefit from talking to a professional about their feelings, please do speak to your GP or seek out support from a trained counsellor.
LionHeart offers free professional counselling to the children of UK-based RICS members (aged 12 to 18). To find out more please call the LionHeart support team who will be able to talk you through the next steps and refer you.
Ring 0800 009 2960 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Carmel Mullan-Hartley is Chief Executive of Open Door Counselling, recently commissioned by LionHeart to provide a free youth counselling service for the children and young people of RICS professionals aged 12 to 18. This blog was originally written for the Open Door website.