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How to Help a Grieving Child

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Jun 24, 2015

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Most children experience death during their childhood, be it a grandparent, parent, sibling, close relative, or pet. And with extensive media coverage of natural or manmade tragedies around the world, children are exposed to the loss of life many times over before they become adults. Which puts parents in the tough position — often when they are also vulnerable — of explaining death to children and then helping children cope with grief.

How to explain death to a child

Give clear and truthful information.

Do it in a way that children can understand. For example: A 7-year-old whose grandmother dies suddenly may not talk about her—but that does not mean he should not know what happened. He should be given a simplified explanation that is closest to the truth. One way to tell him could be, “When a person dies it means that her heart stops working. Dadi’s heart stopped beating.”

Avoid euphemisms.

Phrases like “She passed away” or “We lost her” may confuse a young child, who may then actually try to “find” the deceased. Using phrases like “God took her away” could affect a child’s faith, because the child can see God as the one who took away someone precious. Also, a sure way of causing sleep disturbances is to say, “Dadi has gone to sleep.” Children will be scared of falling asleep for fear they may never wake up. Be ready to answer all questions, which will probably be frequent and repetitive.

Once they understand what has occurred, grief for children doesn’t manifest the same way as it does for adults. Young people are likely to show their grief in less direct ways and to move in and out of grief. One day, they appear to be fine; on another, they will show that they are not managing so well.

How children grieve

Grief in children is shaped by four factors:

  1. Age of the child: A schoolgirl will grieve more for her dead dog than a two-year-old baby.
  2. Temperament of the child: An anxious child will take more time to recover from the loss of a sibling than an easygoing child.
  3. Atmosphere at home: A child living in a tense household, where there are constant fights, will be less able to come to terms with a death compared with a child living in an integrated family.
  4. Connectedness to the dead person: A grandparent living in the same home as the child will be mourned more deeply than a grandparent staying elsewhere.

While most of the above factors mean grief is highly individualized, age does provide a common thread in children’s response to and understanding of death.

Prior to six years

Preschoolers and toddlers have very little understanding of death. They look upon it as reversible, believing that they can make it happen and, in the next breath, undo it. Their reactions to it will range from crying and clinging to tantrums and fighting.

6- to 9-year-olds

Children at this age are beginning to learn that death is permanent, but still need to have this often confirmed. They will question what happened to the deceased many times over. Sometimes, they feel responsible for the death. For example, a 7-year-old angry at his mother may say something like, “I wish you’d go away.” Should she die soon after, he could feel he caused the tragedy. Children of this age typically blame themselves or exhibit anger, denial, irritability, regression, fluctuating moods, and scholastic problems in reaction to death.

9- to 12-year-olds

By nine, most children know that death is a permanent state and understand how it can come about, that it happens to everyone, and it will one day affect them, too. The self-blame of earlier ages disappears, but instead, they may tend to blame others. Kids this age generally show aggression, crying, withdrawal, suppressed emotions, sleep problems, concern about physical health, and scholastic decline.

How to help a grieving child

There is no surefire way of helping children deal with grief, and no shortcuts. However, these actions can go a long way to bring children both comfort and understanding.

Attend the funeral with your child.

It is a good idea to take children for a funeral, provided they are comfortable with it and you have explained in detail what will happen. If not the funeral, let him attend a puja or other religious ceremony or memorial service.

Be there to talk.

Always be present for your child to ask any questions that come up. Unless they are speaking with a parent, kids feel that mentioning death is unsafe and will not bring up the subject. If she does not initiate the conversation, you could begin with: “Some things are very difficult to discuss, but talking helps. If you ever want to talk about what has happened, let me know.”

Be open to expression other than talking.

Sometimes younger children struggle to put complex feelings and thoughts into words. Help her find alternative ways to show express her grief through writing a letter, story or poem, or painting and drawing. Reassure her that you will love her always.

Share memories.

The day her husband died, a recently bereaved mother put away his photographs, thinking that if her son did not see them, he would not miss his father. This doesn’t work; what your child has now are only memories of the deceased, which can’t and shouldn’t be erased by hiding evidence of existence. Sit with your child and go through albums where he can see photos of the deceased and recall instances of their interaction. The boy whose grandmother died was given a memento by which he could remember her. For your child, it could be a favourite pillow or key chain—anything small and meaningful that reminds him of the dead person.

Share your own grief.

Parents worry that children get even more upset if they see us crying. On the contrary—if your child sees you upset and crying, she will feel comforted that there are other family members as upset as herself. Realising that Papa cries, then wipes his tears and is back to normal, makes her feel she can do the same. The only time you should not share your grief is when you are totally out of control. That will cause your child to feel that her safety is in jeopardy and you are unable to take care of her.

Stick to routines.

As far as possible, maintain whatever daily routine your child is used to. A child needs to feel secure that life does go on as before. His school, his extracurricular activities, his meeting with his friends should resume as quickly as possible.

Inform the school.

Let your child’s school teacher know about the bereavement so that he or she can be more sensitive if any behavioral or emotional issues ensue at school.

Consider professional help.

If your child is persistently withdrawn, sad, preoccupied with death, unable to concentrate in school, or wishes for death even six months after the bereavement, he or she may need professional help.

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Written By Dr. Pervin Dadachanji

Dr. Pervin Dadachanji is a practicing psychiatrist with a special interest in child and adolescent psychiatry. She completed her MBBS and M.D. (Psychiatry) from Seth G.S. Medical College and K.E.M. Hospital, Mumbai. She has also done a stint in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at The Royal Free Hospital, London. She has been in private practice since the past 20 years. She conducts parenting workshops for various parent groups, schools and nurseries in Mumbai. She also does workshops for children and adolescents on sexuality and body science. She has written a book called Recipes for Parenting and is consultant psychiatrist at Ummeed, a Child Development Centre in Mumbai.

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