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Monday, March 3, 2014

How to Respond to Grieving Children

I'm concluding a mini-series on children and death today. if you missed earlier posts, you can click here for the introductory article on what children understand about grief, and here for the post on what common grief reactions are for the each age group.

Today, I'll wrap it up with how adults are supposed to intervene and respond to children in the various age ranges.


Infants basically need consistent care, which includes physical contact that is both nurturing and loving, as well as a secure routine. Patience is a huge asset to have when they are upset. Your presence does more than anything else. Watch your tone and take care to breathe deeply, as infants absorb your mood almost by osmosis. They sense when adults around them are upset. Older children in this age range will respond to simple, honest explanations. If they attend a funeral, they need individual attention directed to them, so that they can ask questions and receive support.


Older children also need simple and honest explanations, but they really need adults who are patient with their questions and thoughts. Responding appropriately to their innocent questions will go a long way toward reassuring them that the world is still aright. When adults are crying, telling a child that the adult is sad or missing/thinking about so-and-so will help normalize the child's similar reaction. One of the worst things you can do is skirt around the words "dead" and "death." To tell a child that someone is simply "sleeping," or "gone away," or "resting," or "passed away" doesn't illuminate the situation, and often cause confusion. This age also needs steady routines, and might need additional help and prompting through transition times. Adults can read books that explain death (there are many good ones on the market that I like to use in sessions), and can involve the child in methods to help them find closure (drawing a picture, writing a letter, etc.) with the deceased.               


The same basic interventions apply as for the age group above, but perhaps with more emphasis on rituals and closures. Allowing the child to talk about the death over and over is important, as each time the child is working something else out emotionally. Education about death and what it means is appropriate, using words they will understand. Books with this age group are very helpful, as well, and I find that artistic means of expressing themselves are great. Not only does art occupy their hands with something, but it frees their minds to be able to talk more stream of conscious. Many times, children this age will free associate almost, with memories of the person they lost. Acknowledging their pain and tears, as well as the adult's pain and tears, is an important step to remember, so as to normalize their emotional experiences.


Older children need someone to listen to them...when/if they are ready to talk. Do not force the issue. Mandatory counseling is often counter-indicated, because teens will talk when they're good and ready to do so. Of course, encourage communication, but just being available is sometimes enough. Helping them understand that they might have more intense reactions on the deceased's birthday or anniversary is good psychoeducational information to give them. They might want to make use of a journal or a particular playlist on their phone or iPod that helps them cope better.

Let's Analyze

Have I missed anything on grief and children that you wanted me to cover? If so, drop me a comment below and I'll try to address it next week.