By Lauren Schneider
In the United States, 1:20 children experience the death of a parent by age 15. Other children face the death of siblings,friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. With such a high occurrence of this major life cycle event it behooved parents, therapists and educators to learn how to support grieving children. Children experience a range of intense emotions including sadness, anger, fear and guilt. They feel isolated and ill equipped to talk about the death of a loved one with peers, and often are reluctant to share their grief with surviving family members for fear of upsetting them.
Far too often, children end up grieving alone.
So, what is that best way to give your support to a grieving child? As grown-ups, we often shield children from the reality of death for fear of their reactions. We do this not out of neglect, but with the misguided belief that children won’t be able to handle the grief. In reality, and with parental support, children can and do learn to accept the reality of the death and cope with the different grief reactions that arise. Although may not seek them out children benefit from parental support.
The following are a few tips to guide you as you support the grieving child in your life:
Honestly explain the cause of death to children.
Children want to be told the truth about the death. Tell them using direct, age-appropriate language and ask them if they have any questions to clear up misconceptions or offer additional information they are developmentally ready to understand.
Children look to you as a role model for how people grieve
Share your feelings with them about the death without burdening them with the task of caring for your emotions. While each child will grieve in their own unique way they will look to you for information about how to grieve. Know that they may grieve alone in an effort to shield you from their pain if you appear too fragile.
Find ways to remember the person who died
It is important to find ways to honor the memory of the person who died especially around the holidays, birthdays and other celebrations. Include kids when planning family remembrances such as a balloon release, tree planting or participation in a memorial run.
Children need to be taught coping strategies
Discuss safe ways to cope when painful feelings arise. Set aside time to engage in activities that help release painful emotions such as exercising, listening to music, journaling or taking deep, cleansing breaths,
Children need to know that support is available for them
Because grieving children will fear another death they need to know who would take care of them if you could not. If possible, include them when decisions are made. They want to know there is someone that will always be there for them.
Benjamin Franklin said “In this world nothing is sure but death and taxes.” Nevertheless, the subject still remains taboo and far too many grieving children fall through the cracks. When a death occurs and it isn’t talked about it becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. Remember that children are very resilient and will, with support, survive and even thrive after the death of a loved one.
Lauren Schneider, LCSW
Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Programs, OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center
Lauren, a nationally recognized authority on Children’s Grief, has provided trainings for mental health clinicians, educators, clergy, health care providers and graduate students throughout the community since 2000. Lauren is the author of “Children Grieve Too: A Handbook for Parents of Grieving Children”. She also created “My Memory Book…for grieving children” as well as grief-related curricula for use at Camp Erin Los Angeles and in OUR HOUSE grief support groups. Lauren is the Associate Producer of “One Last Hug…and a few smooches” an Emmy award winning HBO documentary about Children’s Grief. She trains and supervises OUR HOUSE group leaders as well as MSW and MFT clinicians and students. Lauren maintains a private practice in Los Angeles specializing in grief and loss.