As far as uncomfortable conversations go, talking about death with our kids is up there with the birds and the bees. Loss is a common and natural experience, and yet when death happens (as it inevitably does), we are at a loss about what to do next. As hard as it is, it is important for children and youth to have their grief witnessed and supported. The Children’s Grief Foundation of Canada confirms that 1 in 5 children experience the death of a family member before they turn 18, so we can’t afford to maintain the cultural taboo. With truthful information, comfort, and connection, children and teens can cope with loss and build resilience.
First things first. There are a few things you need to know about children’s grief.
The first is that grief is not just about death. Children experience many losses in their lives, big and small, and grief is a normal response to the loss of something important to them. Grief can come up when moving houses, changing schools, when a friend moves away, after a new diagnosis, or when a family system changes. It’s important to recognize, acknowledge and validate all experiences of grief.
Secondly, grief is a terrible co-pilot. Grief accompanies kids and teens to school, to soccer practice, piano lesson, and playdates, and it can affect their learning, their friendships, and their ability to manage their emotions and behaviour. Letting others, such as their teacher or caregiver, know about their loss is an important way to support them.
Lastly, grief doesn’t have a concrete timeline, and it can last a lot longer than you think. There is a misconception that grief dissipates over time and so it can be surprising when loved ones are “still” grieving long after a death. But losing a loved one can hurt for a lifetime, with waves of grief coming and going like waves on a shore. Children and teens re-grieve at important milestones in their lives, as well as on special days, feeling the loss of the person, pet, or thing that they loved. Keep these grief basics in mind, as well as the knowledge that each grief journey is a unique and personal experience. That said, there are some things that we know for sure about the developmental needs of children and youth.
Children and teens need truthful information.
No matter the loss, young people need clear and honest developmentally appropriate information about their experiences. This means using language that is free of euphemisms, offering explanations for new terms and concepts (such as death, burial, or cremation), and answers to their questions. Encourage them to share their feelings and ask questions and accept and validate the things they share. Sometimes young children have a hard time verbalizing their thoughts and fears. Common ones are: Did I cause this to happen? Can it happen to me? Who will take care of me now? It’s a good idea to address these concerns even if they are not asked directly.
It’s tempting to want to shelter our kids from negative feelings, and sometimes we can assume that death is too scary, sad, or complex for children to understand. Unfortunately, this can backfire. Children and teens are sensitive to their environment and pick up on the energy and emotions of the people around them. If a family member is grieving, or there is a loss in their community, children will feel it. Sensing that something is wrong, but not knowing what it is can feel very scary. They will often make incorrect assumptions such as thinking that they are responsible, or fill in the blanks with their imaginations, which may be even scarier than the truth. Providing clear explanations establishes trust and safety, healthy coping, and resilience.
Lastly, children’s understanding of death and other complex concepts changes over time as they grow and mature. It is important to revisit a loss to check for misunderstandings, even if it happened a long time ago. Details may need to be revisited in order for them to be incorporated into their growing understanding.
It sounds simple enough, but we know that talking to kids about death is hard. No one wants to talk about grief, and that makes perfect sense. Most of us grew up in families where the topic of death was just not talked about, and we live in a society that rewards hiding our feelings and pushing through!
Because of this, we often have our own unresolved feelings of grief that threaten to bubble up. Using a book about loss can be a useful tool to give you the language necessary for this tough subject and can be a springboard for questions and topics that are relevant to your child. Talking about grief, loss and death with children is important; even when it is uncomfortable for us. If talking about it feels too hard or activates our own grief, we can enlist the help of other loving adults in our lives such as an aunt or uncle, friend, neighbour, or teacher.
Children and teens need space to express and process their feelings.
Children’s grief reactions may vary from day to day and moment to moment, and can include guilt, anxiety, anger, fear, and sadness. However, children can only hold intense feelings of grief for short periods of time. This might look like expressing their feelings and asking questions in bursts and then returning abruptly back to their play. Though adults may view this as insensitive or abrupt, it is completely normal. Children may also lack the ability to express their feelings verbally, and instead you might notice a change in their behaviour, or their play. Seeing themes of funerals, death, or illness in your young child’s play is normal and a good indication that they are processing new information. Play is a natural and necessary way for children to cope with difficult feelings. Young children are not likely to sit down to a lengthy talk with you about grief. But being together while painting, playing with playdough, making a craft, cooking, or gardening creates developmentally appropriate spaces for kids to talk about their feelings, memories, and questions. Older kids and teens may prefer to express themselves more privately in a journal or sketchbook.
When big feelings show up, we can help kids and teens to express them in a way that works for them. Each person has their own style or activities that they are drawn to, and having a handful of accessible ideas can be useful. Big emotions can inspire painting, journal writing, or fuel a slapshot in the driveway. Pillow fights, trampolines, and riding bikes can help to move tricky feelings too. Some kids might prefer to draw or read or walk in nature to move feelings. Learning what helps them to cope with emotions allows them to get to know themselves better, building a strong foundation of emotional intelligence.
Don’t forget to make space for your own feelings. When there is a loss, children are learning about grief and what it means to share feelings. Being honest about how you feel is a valuable learning experience for them. Go ahead and model what it means to express emotions, name them, and take care of yourself when difficult feelings arise. If your own grief feels overwhelming, the best thing you can do to support your kids is to find support for yourself. Having a regular and consistent time during the week to sit with your own grief, such as with a counsellor or support group or a friend who understands, is important for your own coping, making it easier for you to hold space for your child.
Children and teens need connection and care.
Maintaining a connection with a loved one who died is an important part of supporting kids to cope with loss. Children benefit from assurance that the loss they are feeling is important and real. Talking about the person who died, sharing stories, and saying their name, all help to continue the connection between a child and the one who is missed. Rituals, ceremonies, and memorials can provide space for remembering and for honouring loss. Young people can also be involved in creating rituals that are meaningful to them. This can look like baking their loved one a cake on the anniversary of their birthday, or lighting a candle on an important day where they would normally be there. Everyday rituals such as writing them a letter, or doing something that they used to do together, can create the feeling of connection that helps young people cope with the absence of a loved one. Other tangible ways of creating connection can be looking at a photo album, making a scrapbook or memory box, or keeping something that was special to the loved one or to their relationship, such as a baseball glove, snow globe, or record collection. Remembering is an important part of grieving and healing.
Children and teens also need to feel connected to their loved ones who are still living, and those who are caring for them. Loss can bring up feelings of separation anxiety and other fears, and comfort and togetherness can be soothing. Warm baths, comfort food, quiet walks, cuddling on the couch, all help to create the safety, connection, and comfort that our nervous systems crave during difficult times. It can be tempting to keep up the normal pace and routines of family life, but making time for comfort and care can go a long way in supporting a young person with grief.
Connection can also come in the form of support such as therapy or peer-led support groups. Older kids and teens typically don’t like to stand out or be different from their peers. This age group can benefit from support groups with peers who are experiencing the same things as them. This can help to normalize their grief and provide an outlet for emotions.
Navigating new and difficult situations such as grief and loss can be so hard for parents. Our kids don’t come with manuals and the grief experience can be so varied and individual that we can get lost in wondering where to begin and if we are doing it right. There is a common analogy that likens grief to throwing a handful of glitter in the air. At first, it’s just a huge mess, and it gets all over you and everything around you. It can be cleaned up. But days, weeks and even months afterward, you will find pieces of glitter in the most random of places, without any warning at all. Each time you come across a piece of glitter, return to these three ideas: Your kids and teens need truthful information, space to express their feelings, connection, and care. You’ve got this.
Nicki Elischer is an Art Therapist, Registered Clinical Counsellor, and Child Life Specialist with a private practice in Vancouver BC. Amanda Lascelle has been a Child Life Specialist supporting hospitalized kids in Vancouver for close to twenty years. They are co-owners of With Love Grief Support (www.withlovegriefgifts.com), where they design therapeutic sympathy gifts and memorial art kits to support children and teens with grief.