As parents we want to protect our children from anything that will cause them sadness or distress; the thought of them experiencing these negative emotions feels almost unbearable. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that we have no control over as parents; one of those things is the loss of a loved one. Death is hard for us as adults to process and make sense of. Our emotions take over and it takes a lot of time to feel better. But for a young child it is much different; they don't yet fully understand the permanence of death or the powerful feelings of grief.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no "appropriate" length of time to experience grief following the death of an important person. The grieving process varies from child to child and changes as the child grows older. Children's reactions to death depend upon the child's age, developmental level, previous life experiences, emotional health before the death, and family and social environment. Common expected responses include:
- Emotional reactions such as sadness, anger, guilt, insecurity
- Changes in behavior such as aggression, loss of appetite, sleep problems
- Interpersonal difficulties such as social isolation, clinging, irritability
- Changes in thinking, including constant thoughts about the person, preoccupation with death
- Altered perceptions including believing the deceased is still present, dreaming about the person
Parents, caregivers and/or family members need to keep the lines of communication open to let the child know that she can talk to them. Although parents may be working through their own grief process and it may be an emotional time for them too, it is still important for a child to know that talking about the loss is not off limits. It is okay for children to know that grown-ups are also sad when they experience a loss. It will help them to understand that death is difficult for everyone, and that dealing with the feelings of sadness is the only way to cope with it. However, it is also important for parents to have other adults to provide support for them, and should be cautious in how much a child hears about the details. Know that kids may not always want to talk about their feelings. Forcing them to do so will not help, but being there when they do want to talk about it will. Keep a close eye on children going through a loss; don't be afraid to contact a mental health professional with experience in working with children dealing with grief.
The NCTSN offers a tip sheet and a variety of other resources for caregivers with school-age children dealing with a traumatic event. In addition there are a variety of children's books available that are aimed at helping younger children cope with the loss of a loved one.