Helping A Child Cope With Grief And Loss
When a family member dies, children react
differently from adults. Preschool children
usually see death as temporary and reversible, a
belief reinforced by cartoon characters who
"die" and "come to life" again. Children between
five and nine begin to think more like adults
about death, yet they still believe it will
never happen to them or anyone they know.
Adding to a child's shock and confusion at
the death of a brother, sister, or parent is the
unavailability of other family members, who may
be so shaken by grief that they are not able to
cope with the normal responsibility of child
Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family, as well as signs when a child is having difficulty coping with grief. According to most child therapists, it is normal during the weeks following the death for some children to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive. However, long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can be emotionally unhealthy and can later lead to more severe problems.
A child who is frightened about attending a funeral should not be forced to go. However, honoring or remembering the person in some way, such as lighting a candle, saying a prayer, making a scrapbook, reviewing photographs, or telling a story may be helpful.
Once children accept the death, they are
likely to display their feelings of sadness on
and off over a long period of time, and often at
unexpected moments. The surviving relatives
should spend as much time as possible with the
child, making it clear that the child has
permission to show his or her feelings openly or
The person who has died was essential to the
stability of the child's world, and anger is a
natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in
boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a
variety of other behaviors. Often the child will
show anger towards the surviving family members.
After a parent dies, many children will act
younger than they are. The child may temporarily
become more infantile; demand food, attention
and cuddling; and talk "baby talk." Younger
children frequently believe they are the cause
of what happens around them. A young child may
believe a parent, grandparent, brother, or
sister died because he or she had once "wished"
the person dead when they were angry. The child
feels guilty or blames him or herself because
the wish "came true."
Children who are having serious problems with
grief and loss may show one or more of these
- an extended period of depression in which
the child loses interest in daily activities
- inability to sleep, loss of appetite,
prolonged fear of being alone
much younger for an extended period
imitating the dead person
- repeated statements of wanting to join the
- withdrawal from friends, or
- sharp drop in school performance or
refusal to attend school
These warning signs indicate that
professional help may be needed. A child
therapist can help the child accept the death
and assist the survivors in helping the child
through the mourning process. At the Counseling
Corner children and issues of grief and loss are
one of the many areas that we specialize.
Please contact us if we can be of assistance.