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Helping Children Through Grief

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It is important to talk (and listen) to children who are grieving. Expert Helen Fitzgerald shares how.

The death of a family member, friend, or community member can be a traumatic experience for a child or teen. In particular “a child suffering the loss of a parent or sibling is likely to be in great need of personal attention,” says author and grief expert Helen Fitzgerald. It is important to talk (and listen) to children who are grieving, but we may not know what to say or do. Here Helen Fitzgerald shares what to expect from a grieving child and what you can do to help a child after a death. 

How to Help a Grieving Child

• As soon as possible after the death, set time aside to talk to your child.

• Give your child the facts in a simple manner—be careful not to go into too much detail. Your child will ask more questions as they come up in his/her mind.


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• If you can’t answer your child’s questions, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know how to answer that, but perhaps we can find someone to help us.”

• Use the correct language—say the word “dead” etc. Do not use phrases such as: “He’s sleeping,” or “God took her,” or “He went away,” etc.

• Ask your child questions to better understand what he or she may be thinking or feeling. “What are you feeling?” “What have you heard from your friends?” “What do you think happened?” etc.

• Explain your feelings to your child, especially if you are crying. Give children permission to cry. We are their role models and it’s appropriate for children to see our sadness and for us to share our feelings with them.

• Use the given name of the deceased when speaking of him or her.

• Understand the age and level of comprehension of your child. Speak to that level.

• Talk about feelings, such as: sad, angry, feeling responsible, scared, tearful, depressed, worried, etc.

• Read an age-appropriate book on childhood grief so you have a better understanding of what your child may be experiencing.


Are you grieving the loss of a loved one? Find comfort in one of our grief support groups.


• Read an age-appropriate book on death to your child. Take time to discuss what you have read and relate it to what is happening to you.

• Talk about the viewing and funeral. Explain what happens at these events and find out if your child wants to attend.

• Think about ways your child can say “goodbye” to the person who has died.

• Talk to your child about God, if appropriate, and what happens to people after they die.

• Invite your child to come back to you if he or she has more questions or has heard rumors—tell your child you will help get the correct information.

• Talk about memories, good ones and ones not so good.

• Watch out for “bad dreams.” Are they occurring often? Talk about the dreams.

• Watch for behavioral changes in your child both at home or at school.

• Friends, family, schoolmates, etc, frequently find solace and comfort in doing something in the name of the person who died—a memorial.

You might see some of the following behavior:

 Tearfulness
 Irritability
Clinging to you
Whining
Somatic complaints
Temporary dip in grades
More pronounced fears, e.g, of dying or of you dying, of the dark, etc.
Regression in behavior
Aggressive behavior

These are normal emotions. Offer your child loving, touching support. 

If, however, you ever feel the reactions are more extreme or lasting longer than you think they should be, never hesitate to consult a professional.

Helen Fitzgerald is a Certified Thanatologist, author and lecturer. Her books include The Grieving Child: A Parents’ Guide, The Mourning Handbook, and The Grieving Teen. She has appeared on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was previously the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation. © 2004 American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved. Originally published June 2009 on Legacy.

 


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Although everyone experiences bereavement and grief differently, that doesn't mean that you have to do it alone. Join one of our grief support groups.