Dealing With Loss
5 tips to help children manage grief.
Posted Feb 28, 2020
“It’ll all be okay.” “They’re in a better place now.” “Remember the good times.”
These are the phrases that a child often hears when someone dies. They are words that often hold no meaning to the child. In the case of sudden and traumatic death, they are words that are out of sync with internal feelings—something that can easily lead to increased levels of stress and confusion, especially in a child.
Grief processing can be complicated for many people. Children, in particular, may struggle to process the death of someone who holds significance in their lives. When this happens, children may be unable to accept death and deal with the changes that often ensue. They often block all memories of the person, remaining stuck in the pain of the death itself 1. Phrases like the ones above cause further confusion and dissonance as children can not fathom a way out of their negative feelings.
In these situations, death, itself, is a highly traumatic trigger. They may suffer poor emotional regulation and a stalling of their emotional development. If the grief is left unprocessed, children will often respond similarly to other forms of trauma.
Fortunately, there are ways you can help your children. The following five tips will help you support children who are dealing with significant grief 2:
- Keep lines of communication open. Although children may be resistant to talking about the loss, they often have many questions and a need to speak. Be open to answering the questions as honestly as possible and discussing the loss. However, avoid pushing the child to talk before they are ready.
- Help children understand the normal grief process. When children are struggling to regulation their feelings after a loss, they often do not realize that dysregulation is a part of the grief process. Take some time to explain the process to your children. If you are unsure of the grief cycle, speak with a counselor or psychologist at the school to help.
- Create a supportive environment at home. Focus on creating an atmosphere of safety and connection. Children experiencing loss are often in a highly fragile state. Providing additional reminders of safety and deepening positive relationships will help children process through their grief more quickly. Additionally, returning to regular routines as much as possible and as soon as possible will also help children regain a sense of safety and balance, aiding in their recovery.
- Maintain household expectations, but add a layer of flexibility. Part of communicating safety to children is maintaining clear expectations and boundaries. After a traumatic event and death, it is essential to keep those expectations, but with an added layer of flexibility. Children may struggle with their emotional regulation as a normal part of the grief process. It is important to understand the behavior they may exhibit within the context of the grief. Be flexible in your response to the behaviors, guiding children to more acceptable and appropriate ways to show grief.
- Encourage children to “move through” their feelings, not block or ignore them. When your child encounters a pervasive wave of pain or anger, help them move through the feeling. With big negative emotions, we tend to tell kids to just push through, to switch thinking without actually “feeling” whatever they are feeling. Instead, encourage your child to try to understand the feeling – what the feeling is, why they are feeling it, and what they can do next. This will help them process the emotions at the moment instead of either storing them and exploding later or ignoring them and detaching from all feelings. It is important to note that sometimes we can’t process through emotions at the moment, like during a crisis. If this happens, it is fine to put the processing “on hold.” It’s essential, however, to re-evaluate the emotions as soon as possible after the crisis has passed.
Death is something each of us will encounter in our lifetime. It is essential to find ways to appropriate process through the loss so that our response creates additional trauma, leading to poor emotional regulation, stalled emotional development, and more. Death is hard. Pain is real. But we can learn to navigate the emotions without becoming overwhelmed.
1. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.-b). Traumatic Grief. https://nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/traumatic-grief.
2. Fonseca, C. (2020). Healing the Heart: Helping Your Child Thrive After Trauma. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.