In this article the author studies grief with children by looking at the way in which children grieve and then providing some guidelines for helping children cope with grief.

3 pages. Translated by Sabrine Bosscha.

How Children Cope with Grief

Grown-ups say that it is not so bad for children because they are small and they are only children. But that is not true! Because children feel pain just as well as grown-ups!
Quote from the book: “I get tears in my eyes when I think of you”.

There are many reasons why children have to face loss and grief. In this article I wish to enter into dealing with children’s grief after the loss of a loved one. Experiencing loss is part of life and cannot be prevented, unfortunately. We will have to teach children how to cope with it. In the past, people wished to shield children from all that had to do with serious diseases and suffering. The subject was a taboo, partly out of discomfort with the subject and partly with good intentions, namely, not wanting to ask too much of the child: “ignorance is bliss”.

But children grieve too. However small they are, they react to loss. It is not wise to keep grief away from children. When grandma or grandpa has died, a young child also wants to be involved. Adults have the important task of helping children cope with their feelings.

How Do Children Grieve?🔗

All people, big and small, show certain recognizable reactions when dealing with grief, even though every person is unique and every situation is different. In order to understand how children react it is important to know how children perceive death.

Babies and toddlers up to three years of age🔗

Very small children up to about three years old, do not yet have an understanding of death. Nevertheless, the passing away of a person important to them has a great influence. They feel very clearly that something dramatic has taken place. Babies are particularly sensitive to atmosphere. They notice that the one to provide them with love, warmth and comfort is no longer there or that there is a changed atmosphere in their environment.

Toddlers and kindergarten children up to about six years old🔗

Children between three and six years of age know the difference between life and death, but they do not yet have a realistic perception of death. The realization that death means a definite separation here on earth cannot yet be grasped. They think, e.g. that you are dead for a short time (like in their games) and that you become alive again after a while.

That is why they will at some time ask “when is grandpa coming back”. When we tell them that the deceased is with the Lord Jesus in heaven, then the child has the notion that he or she lives on there in exactly the same manner, only in a different place.

A four-year-old girl had understood that her daddy had gone to heaven. Yet she was angry and disappointed that he (9 months later) did not come to her birthday. “He could have just come for that, couldn’t he?!”

From this example we see that children have a different perception of death than adults. At the sight of a dead person they will be more focussed on visible characteristics. “Now grandpa can’t walk anymore, can he?’, “Will Granny not need her glasses in heaven?” By asking questions about visible characteristics they are trying to understand what it is: being dead. So it is far from inappropriate when children try to grasp the meaning of death by asking “funny” questions.

A little boy of five was told that his little brother had died. He reacted with a huge crying fit. After five minutes, he dried his tears and asked “Does his piggybank belong to me now?”

Children from six to nine years old🔗

Children from the age of six to nine understand better what being dead means. Yet they still do not have a completely realistic perception of the matter. What death means exactly and that anybody can die, is difficult for them to grasp. They can easily start fantasizing about what death is and what heaven looks like. They sometimes even blame themselves for their father’s death. This feeling of guilt is inspired by the thought that they must be responsible in some way or other because they were naughty or were angry at their deceased father. Because they cannot really understand how it works, children fill in the gaps with their own fantasy.

Peter of six no longer wants to play with his friend Erik. Erik’s father recently died of cancer. “If I play with Erik, my father might get cancer too”.

For children it is still difficult to find words to express their often strong feelings. While children are often able to let some of their grief show by means of games and picture books in a safe and trusted environment, in the first instance, however, many children will express their grief in physical behaviour: crying, sucking their thumb, showing rowdy or, in other cases, very reticent behaviour.

Children from ten years upward🔗

Children from ten years and up are more capable of logical thinking. They start to realize that death is definite and that it can happen to anyone. They realize “that Daddy is not coming home”. Everyone can pass away and for various reasons. When someone dies, it can be because of sickness, old age or a traffic accident. Because they are able to “reason” about death and have more of a sense of reality, they often try to put on a bold face. In doing so, they keep their feelings to themselves. But they actually do not know how to handle it. They, too, are in need of a safe and trusted environment.

Some Guidelines for Helping Children when Coping With Grief🔗

  1. Dealing with the grief is never truly over. It takes a lifetime, but it does change over time.
  2. Give children correct and clear information about death. Adults sometimes use the words “going on a journey” and “sleeping”. This makes thing very unclear for the child. Heaven is sometimes portrayed as very wonderful and colourful. Be aware that children can take this in a very different way.
  3. Give children room to grieve. Give them the opportunity to express this even in unexpected ways and at inconvenient moments. For children sometimes “lose it” after an unpleasant remark. Pay attention when children display their grief indirectly. This happens through behaviour or physical complaints. Sometimes the emotions are much stronger in the second or third year after the loss. A remark like “when are you going to get over it” is grossly out of place.
  4. As a parent, let your own emotions show. It does not matter if children see their parents cry. Certainly it may shock them, but it might also give them a feeling of being involved, of belonging.
  5. Ensure safety and continuity. When children lose a father or mother, they also lose their familiar career. But also the father who helped with homework or went with them to their sports practice. And the mother who, when you arrived home tired from school, made you something to drink. Children suffer a double loss. Is there anyone in their surroundings who can be available for the child? An aunt, a neighbour or a grandmother? Consider “who can best comfort the child?”
  6. Children not only lose their brother or sister but also all sorts of activities within a family. A child suddenly becomes the oldest or the only child. Besides the loss of a sibling, the child loses many other things: a buddy to argue with, a buddy to go swimming with.
  7. Is God also there for grieving children? The Lord wants to comfort and be near. Can you offer this comfort to children and can they do something with it? In the Bible there are many words of comfort. Children may be made aware that God is there for them also when they have great sorrow (Psalm 23). Especially in sorrow children can taste something of the height and width of God’s faithfulness and love. All your questions, all your pain and grief, you may bring to God. There is not an answer for every question and parents can admit that they do not have all the answers but praying can give comfort to children. Go to God together with your child or children and place your life and that of your child or children in his hands. Ask others to pray with you, and for you, if it is still too difficult for you yourself.
  8. Make use of rituals and symbols. All sorts of customs help to give shape to dramatic and huge occurrences in life. We can consider burning a candle, making a photo book, naming the deceased at the end of the year, remembering the deceased on special days in the year, like their birthday.
  9. Comfort is truly observing the child and feeling what he/she needs. Comfort is being available and offering safe nearness. Pay attention to special days for the child. Comfort is sometimes very practical: cooking or doing something together. Comfort is having the courage to talk about the deceased.

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