Helping Children Grieve
Ten tips for helping children and teens cope with loss.
Posted May 01, 2020
Each day, reporters update us as to the number of deaths from COVID-19. It is easy to get caught up in tracking the numbers. As of May 1, 2020, the total number of cases diagnosed in the US surpassed 1 million; the total number of US deaths passed 63,000 as of this writing. For context, that’s roughly the same number of deaths of Americans during the 20 year span of the Vietnam War. Each loss is one part of the devastating effects of this disease known as COVID-19. Each of the 63,000 individuals lost to date has left behind family, friends, and co-workers who are grieving them.
Most adults are familiar with the stages of grief, thanks to the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. The simplest model identifies five stages of grief: Denial and isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and lastly, Acceptance (Kubler-Ross, 2014). More recently, Kessler has suggested a sixth stage, Meaning (Kessler, 2019). If these concepts are unfamiliar to you, it is highly recommended that you read and learn about these stages, as they are experienced by many (though not necessarily in a particular order). Awareness of the stages helps to normalize the feelings and behaviors that develop with grief.
As a result of this current epidemic, many of those grieving are children and teens. In general, they comprehend death differently from adults and therefore they grieve differently. They need guidance as to how to cope with the death of a loved one. In addition to understanding the process of grief during youth, many of us need help with the practical decisions around how to help children grieve. Questions arise as soon as a death occurs: How to tell family members, particularly children? Should young children be included in a memorial ceremony? What should they be told about the death? How can teens be helped through the grieving process?
There is no particular “right way” or wrong way to get through the grief process. However, there are some guiding principles that may make the process a bit more bearable for those who are struggling. Some of these apply to the short- term, while others are more relevant in the long-term.
Short-Term Guidelines for Managing Grief of Children and Teens
1. Inform children and teens of the loss in the simplest way that they might understand. Even toddlers will be aware that someone in their life is no longer present. The person’s absence should be acknowledged, although, in general, children under age 5 will not understand the permanence of death. It is helpful to inform children and teens in a physical location where they feel safe and can comfort themselves.
2. Prepare the child or teen for the type of memorial service that the family will have. Depending on the child’s relationship to the deceased, it can be important to include them in some aspect of planning the event. This can serve to acknowledge the importance of the loss for that child. Teens may be particularly anxious about how to act at the memorial. Encourage them to participate and let them know what they can do. Allow them to opt out. Do not force any child or teen to be involved in a memorial service.
3. Accept that a range of emotions is normal following a loss, and let children know this also. They may laugh at one moment and cry in the next. Or, they may show no emotional response at all, especially in the days immediately after the death. It is not unusual for teens to react with anger to a significant loss in their lives. Allow each person to grieve in their own way.
4. Be available and be patient. A caring adult should be willing to sit with them, listen to their concerns and answer questions as well as possible. Teens may have more complex questions, such as why this happened, or why it happened “to them”. Realize that this is very likely the first time they’ve wondered about the meaning of life. The death of a loved one makes us more aware of our own mortality and that can be a highly stressful awareness for teens.
Longer-Term Guidelines for Helping Children and Teens Grieve
5. Consider the role that the lost person had in their life, and acknowledge the loss as huge and irreplaceable. Do what you can to step into that role and compensate for some of that loss. If the child or teen has lost a parent, the impact of their loss is immense. When possible, ask another trusted adult to spend more one-on-one time with the child/teen so that the loss of the parent is partly filled by another caring adult.
6. Inform the other adults involved in the child’s daily life, such as teachers, coaches, or a school counselor. It will be helpful to them in understanding any sudden changes in that child’s behavior.
7. Children and teens should be told about any changes in advance and given some choices where possible. Changes in housing, school attended, or family spending will affect both children and teens in the longer-term. When a difficult change is unavoidable, talk as a family about how to make the situation more tolerable.
8. Recognize that this loss has occurred during the part of the teen’s life in which they are developing a sense of identity. They may be the only one in their peer group who has lost a parent, although this is less likely during a pandemic such as the current one, especially if living in a densely populated area. It may be very helpful to offer them support of a grief group for teens in which they will not be identified solely by their loss.
9. Remain aware of the life-long impacts of losing a parent or sibling during one’s youth. Every milestone event of their future life will be marked with the awareness of that person’s absence. Be willing to recognize this absence when it is meaningful for the bereaved.
10. Keep the happy memories alive. Talk about the fond memories of the lost person, both as a family unit and in one-to-one conversation. Many individuals also find it helpful to create new rituals to memorialize the deceased. These are usually carried out on anniversary dates, such as dates of birth or death. Through these memories and rituals, the deceased truly does live on in the hearts and minds of others.
For those of you feeling new grief at this time, I hope that you find the following quote helpful. For me personally, it rings of truth.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not 'get over' the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to." —Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Kessler, D. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. New York: Scribner.
Kubler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2014). On Grief and Grieving. New York: Scribner.