Grief and loss are two experiences that children will inevitably encounter throughout their lives for many different reasons, but it's not a conversation parents ever feel prepared to have.
Death and loss affect children in individual ways so until it happens, it's difficult to prepare for. Understandably, it might not be a conversation you've thought about how to handle.
Some questions you might be asking yourself are: 'How do I help my child understand grief when I'm unsure of what's normal during the grieving process?' Or 'How can I protect my child's mental health when I'm grieving myself?' While there's no one answer to these questions, there are many resources online for parents to help their children cope with the often overwhelming, and strange, feelings that arise with grief.
What Life Experiences Can Cause Grief Or Loss For Young People?
The death of family members
The death of a friend or another person at school
Parents or carers getting a divorce or undergoing separation
A parent or carer being in prison
Major life changes that affect their home or school life
Big life transitions
Illness or injury, either to the child or a person close to them
The loss of a relationship
The loss or death of a pet
How Might My Child Respond To Grief And Loss?
Mental health charity YoungMinds says "every child and young person will react to, feel, and express loss differently, and this will change over time". A child's response is also influenced by their age.
The symptoms of grief can be both physical and emotional. This is some of what to look out for:
Sudden outbursts of emotion, behaviour changes and asking lots of questions
Delayed reaction – teens will understand the permanence of grief more than kids, so a younger child might not react instantly or be sad all the time like you might expect
Being more clingy and increased physical anxiety or loss of confidence
Increased risk-taking or indifference towards life
Feeling guilty or blaming themselves
Depression or anger
Changes to appetite
Aches and pains
Difficulty sleeping, being scared to sleep or sleeping more
So How Do I Help My Child Or Teen Cope With Grief?
Every parents' instinct is to protect their child but some experiences are too significant to shield them from. It's important to be honest with your child or teen about death and be available to answer any questions they have about what this means. What you say will be influenced by your own beliefs – whether religious or cultural – and you might even want to rehearse your approach. Most importantly, be honest and age-appropriate with your delivery. This will likely mean holding back on some finer details, depending on the age of your child, but the advice is to use clear language. If 'died' or 'dead' seems too harsh, have a think of other words you're more comfortable with to explain the concept of death.
Keeping a loved one's memory alive might seem like it'd be painful for children, however, it's a great way for them to remember the happy times and everything amazing about that person. Activities like creating a memory box or book are something families can do together to process their grief. Memory boxes also serve as a reminder of the connection between your child and who they've lost. Give them time to create it as well as to revisit it when they're ready. Another activity you can do is look at family albums and generally remember and talk about the person, so children and teenagers know it's not taboo to mention the deceased person's name.
Children learn by what they see so it's not negative for adults to show they're upset or to cry. By showing the breadth of your emotions, you normalise them for your family, so nobody feels they must hold it together or cry on their own out of sight. Adults might experience sudden outbursts of emotions too, months or even years after a death, so when it happens, just explain why and let your kids comfort you a bit too. Unreleased emotions lead to increased stress and can cause symptoms of depression that affect other areas of your lives, so be mindful that your mental health is as important as everyone else's.
The death of a parent or family member is a huge blow that ricochets throughout the entire family. Every individual at home will process grieving or loss differently, but you're all experiencing it, so do your best to keep everyone connected throughout this difficult period. Children need reassurance, especially when there are major changes or they sense uncertainty, and this goes for older children too. By demonstrating you're all in this together, it sends a strong message about how to process uncomfortable and overwhelming emotions in healthy ways.
Fiction books offer a soft exploration of challenging themes. There are lots of children and young adult's books that can support their understanding of grief and loss while being age-appropriate. Reading together will also encourage dialogue and give them the space to ask questions.
Some titles we've found are:
Alive Again, Ahmadreza Ahmadi
Badger's Parting Gifts, Susan Varley
Mum's Jumper, Jayde Perkin
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, Annabel Pitcher
The Beauty That Remains, Ashley Woodfolk
The Building Boy, Ross Montgomery
The Cat Mummy, Jacqueline Wilson
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
The Invisible String, Patrice Karst
The Rabbit Listened, Cori Doerrfeld
The Sea House, Esther Freud
Predictable equals safe and occupied, which is why families function best when routines are in place. There has to be some give though, so the advice isn't to pretend as if nothing has changed or to create a packed schedule to keep everyone's minds off the loss. Maintaining routines gives everyone a sense of purpose and certainty. Involve your children in this and ask them if there are any activities they want time for. Put the schedule somewhere central, like the kitchen, so it's visible and everyone knows what's happening at home. Then you, as the parent, don't feel the added pressure of having to keep on top of the daily plan.
Which Charities Can Help My Family?
Tap into the experience and understanding of counsellors, therapists, grief charities and mental health services which will be able to give non-judgemental advice and support, and signpost families to age-appropriate resources.
Here is a list of services you can contact to get support for your children:
0800 02 888 40
08088 020 021
0161 711 0339
0808 802 5544
0808 808 1677
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