By Donna Kane, MA, CT
Grief is an inescapable part of life. Whether it is the death of a family member, friend, teacher, or beloved pet, children will need support when grief strikes. Life cycle events such as birthdays, graduations, and weddings may be a particularly sensitive time for children and teens as they realize their loved one is not there.
In addition, children may not have the language to express their feelings of loss. Parents, family members, and caregivers can help ensure that children receive the love and support they need by offering children outlets for expressing their feelings beyond words and giving children direct and honest answers that are appropriate for their age and development.
Here are some tips for helping children while they struggle with loss:
- Offer choices. Let children decide how they want to say goodbye to the person. Allow them to join in the funeral preparations and the service if they show an interest in participating. Encourage them to work through their grief in ways that work for them.
- Respect different coping styles. Children in the same family may have very different coping styles and that is okay. Let each child work through their grief in ways that work for them.
- Talk about the person who died. Talking about and remembering the person who died may help children open up about their loss. It shows them that grief is a normal part of life and encourages them to think and/or talk about the good memories they have of the person who died.
- Listen without judgement. Ask children questions about what they are experiencing whether it be through words, drawings, or play. Try not to tell them how they should feel or act in their grieving process.
Remember to allow children to take a break from grieving and enjoy moments of laughter and play. Using nature as an example of the life cycle helps to illustrate that there is a beginning and end to life, with much beauty in the middle. Planting and nurturing a growing flower, bush, or tree is a way to honor a loved one’s memory. These opportunities to go beyond words will help with healing.
Children ages 4 to 12 can:
- Make a scream box
- Use worry beads
- Create a family flag
- Draw pictures
- Design a family tree
- Journal (with words, pictures, comic strips, etc.)
All of us will experience the death of someone we love at some point in our life and for most of us, many times in our lives. Sometimes the loss can hit us harder than we expected. Children will grieve their losses at many points in their life and it is important to recognize that there may be times when their grief becomes prolonged or very intense. Helping children and teens to recognize that they may be struggling with grief helps to normalize their feelings and gives them an opportunity to talk and reflect about their loss.
If your child is struggling with grief, check out Beyond Words. This JCS video will guide your child as they go beyond words by decorating a pot, planting seeds, and watching their flower grow. This activity will help your child honor the loved one who died and give them something beautiful to look at when remembering that loved one. Thank you to the Mitchell David Endowment Fund, the Zimmerman Fund for Children, and ZMBMedia for supporting this program.
If you have questions or concerns about children and grief, visit jcsbalt.org/grief or call 410-466-9200.
Donna Kane, MA, CT, is a Grief Clinician at Jewish Community Services.
Jewish Community Services (JCS) is dedicated to providing programs and services that help people of all ages and backgrounds achieve their goals and enhance their wellbeing.
To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.