Death is a profoundly difficult subject for even the wisest adults, so try to just imagine what would be going through a child's mind and heart at the loss of a loved one. In addition to the normal stages of the grieving process identified by psychologists -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- it is not uncommon for children to feel confused, fearful and abandoned. If you are a parent of a grieving child, it helps to know what to expect and what you can do to help your child through the grieving process.
Psychologists agree that for most people, there are five stages to the grieving process. However, there is no one-size-fits all formula and each person will experience each stage for varying lengths of time and perhaps even in a different order. It is important to be patient and understanding when children are grieving because they are trying to wrap their heads around something that is beyond their reach of understanding.
Denial is most likely the first thing your child will experience. Upon hearing of the death of a loved one, your child may refuse to believe it at first. Denial may manifest itself consciously or subconsciously. Your child may call you a liar, or the signs may be more subtle, such as periodically looking out the window to check for the late person's car. If this happens, avoid blunt statements that may add salt to the wound. Try redirecting your child's focus, perhaps by looking at pictures of happy times.
Once denial has passed, usually the next stage is anger. Anger, too, may manifest in a number of ways. It can come out in physical or verbal aggression at home or at school, in the form of shouting, hitting or even throwing objects. A child that aggressively deals with anger may benefit from talking about his or her feelings. Be prepared for shouting and crying at this painful time.
Some children don't express their anger because they don't want to upset their families, so they deal with it in a quiet manner, repressing it and keeping it to themselves. Your child may suddenly stop talking to you or to other loved ones because he or she doesn't know how to deal with the anger in a healthy way. A child who retreats into silence may need space. Offer a listening ear, but do not pressure or force your child to talk what happened if he or she is not ready yet. What is most important for you to remember is that your child is acting out of pain, so avoid reacting by shouting, threatening or punishing, as this can escalate unwanted behaviors.
Bargaining is a stage that usually follows anger. Children may feel like they can make a deal with God and promise to say their prayers every night, stop fighting with their siblings or any number of things, if only God will bring back their loved one. Children who are brought up in faith will often declare that they no longer believe in God or that they hate God when they are in this stage. This is painful and difficult for Christian parents to hear, but this is not a time for lecturing. Gentle reminders that God still loves them and that God understands their pain will eventually help steer your children back to their faith.
Depression can last anywhere from a few weeks to even years. A child suffering with depression may become reclusive and slack on school work or stop engaging in favorite activities. They will sometimes behave unpredictably and may also suffer physical symptoms, such as fatigue, body aches, and weight loss or weight gain. Your child may feel a need to be spiritually or emotionally close to the lost loved one, so creating little family rituals can help. You can light a candle on special occasions, plant a tree or flowers in their memory or write letters and burn them. Acting out rituals provides a sense of connection with the lost loved one that can help your child reach acceptance.
Acceptance is the last step in the process. It is the point at which a person has fully internalized the idea that his or her loved one is gone. This does not mean your child will never shed a tear again. It simply means that your child has learned how to live with the pain of loss.
Children have difficulty comprehending death, and so they may feel intense confusion or fear. Be prepared to answer some difficult questions, and be prepared for questions that can't be answered at all, such as, "Why did this have to happen?" Children that experience fear might benefit from holding on to a token object that belonged to the deceased, such as a piece of jewelry, which can be a comfort in times of uncertainty. Sometimes, children can suffer from feelings of abandonment, and will ask questions like, "Why did Daddy leave me?" If your child feels abandoned, it is important to tell him or her that Daddy (or Mommy, or Grandpa, etc.) did not leave them on purpose, and constantly reassure your child that you are there.
Above all, the most important thing to do for your child is to get him or her into grief counseling. Trained counselors can provide meaningful discussion and coping skills that most of us are not equipped for. Over time, with your help and the help of a professional counselor, your child will be able to re-enter a "normal" life.