The holidays present a unique challenge for grieving families on top of the chaos of a pandemic. With an estimated 1 in 14 children in the U.S. dealing with the death of a parent or sibling before the age of 18, and many more experiencing the death of a beloved pet, grandparent, or friend or family member, it is extremely important for caregivers to know how to support children in these crises. Coping with grief is never easy no matter one’s age, but below are guidelines experts recommend to make the mourning process less encumbering and more accessible for young children.
Encourage the Child to Talk about their Feelings
In many Western countries, the subject of death and grief is an uncomfortable one, to be mentioned briefly in polite conversation before quickly being cast aside in favor of lighter fare. While the intention is good in trying not to bog down the bereaved in more sad thoughts than they already have, not addressing the elephant in the room can make the trauma of loss even scarier for a child. Making time to talk personally and honestly with a child about difficult topics such as the idea of an afterlife and the cycle of life, as well as memories of the deceased person can comfort children who may worry that they are bad or strange for dwelling on something that makes people sad. Just be careful to avoid euphemisms when discussing death with a child, which could make a kid feel talked down to or just confuse them more on what death actually entails.
Allow Children to Express Grief in Different Ways at Different Times
While some children primarily process their grief verbally, it is not the only way to do so. Many children find that they can better express their thoughts about a death through a creative endeavor such as drawing, writing a story, or making up a dance. Others may need to do productive physical activities such as yard work or running around to burn off excess frustration that can build up due to anger about the death. The important thing is that the child is not bottling emotions up and is processing them in a way that feels comfortable and is developmentally healthy. If a child starts showing signs of severe depression or anxiety related to the death, contact a child psychiatrist or psychologist experienced in dealing with bereaved children for further constructive assistance to the child in the grieving process.
Remember that Everyone Grieves at Their Own Pace
Just like there is no “right” way to express grief, there is no “right” time to do so either. Some children start to feel the effects of grief immediately after a loved one passes away, and that is normal. Some children don’t fully begin to articulate the grieving process until days or even weeks after the death, and that is normal too. Grief is very personal, with no standardized timeline to pinpoint when a child should start and stop. However, if a child is still showing signs of denial of the death or avoidance of grief altogether, a specialist should be consulted to ensure severe emotional issues do not develop over time.
Though it is impossible to bring the loved one back to life, there are so many ways to show a child the love and support needed to get through the herculean challenge of processing grief in a healthy manner. For more advice on guiding children through the idea of death and grieving, Star Bright Books is proud to point to the enlightening work of childhood grief advocates Miriam Cohen, Ronald Himler, and Susan Kerner. We wish you and your loved ones strength and peace during the holiday season and throughout the new year. And always, always remember that young or old, you are not alone.