How to Help Children Grieve
Published on in Health Tip of the Week
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Published on in Health Tip of the Week
Considering that adults often have trouble talking about grief among themselves, it’s no surprise that explaining death, dying and grieving to children can be even more difficult.
The Pediatric Advanced Care Team (PACT) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), which works with children facing life-limiting conditions and provides support to their families, understands the struggles families have discussing grief. The team also knows how important it is to open the conversation and to give parents/caregivers and children some tools to express themselves when they may face the loss of a loved one.
Here are tips for families to help navigate times of grief.
Communication is the cornerstone of dealing with a death. Even if parents or caregivers are initially uncomfortable, talking to their children about death and grief may be important. Examples of times it can be helpful are if there is a terminal illness in the family or if a loved one has died. Caregivers should:
If a loved one is sick and you are anticipating their death, consider creating legacy projects with children and their loved ones. Some of these can be done with the materials you might already have on your own, while others can be purchased.
These can be:
If a loved one has already died, engage the child in creating a “memory box.” They can decorate the outside and fill the inside with items that remind them of their loved one. Children can also use photos to put together a scrapbook dedicated to their loved one or get creative and make a video to share their memories.
Continue to talk about the loved one and share stories with your children. Ask them to share stories, too. They could draw a picture of an event or of a special time or place they visited with their loved one, for example, and add it to the memory box.
Other ways to remember their loved one who died is to continue to celebrate milestones on the days that were special for the loved one or start a new tradition that honors the loved one (like volunteering together or visiting a favorite location).
Each child’s reaction to death will look different. Some children may act out or have trouble sleeping. Some children may not show much emotion, while others may cry or express fear. All are normal reactions. It is also normal for children to ask the same question repeatedly over time. As children move through behavioral stages, new questions about their loved one’s death will arise. None of these scenarios should make you worry.
The key is to create a safe space for each child to ask questions and feel supported, regardless of age. Continuing to check in with them over time can help normalize their emotions and reassure each child that there is no specific timeline for their grief.
As you talk about grief with children, it is likely that you, too, are grieving. We want to validate how challenging these conversations are and provide some encouragement.
First, do not worry about expressing emotion in a child’s presence. Seeing caregivers experience sadness, worry or fear validates a child’s own emotion. Seeing examples of adults experiencing challenging emotions and later also having days full of joy and laughter, children learn resilience.
Second, there are no perfect answers to the hard questions that grieving children will ask. However, they will likely not remember the exact words, but rather your kind honesty and your supportive presence. If you need time to gather your thoughts, ask a question back. “Tell me what made you think of that?” It is also OK to not know. Respond instead with, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can do my best to find it for you.” Leave room for silence and let the child guide the conversation.
Lastly, be as patient with yourself as you are with the children you are supporting. This is difficult but important work that will help you, and your children, work through grief in a healthy way.
Contributed by: Elizabeth Spellman, MSW, LCSW, Kelly Goldin, BS, CCLS, CTRS
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