When Children Grieve

How to help a child cope with tragedy and loss.
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While adults try to make sense of the recent terrorist attacks, children are struggling with their own emotions. What they are feeling is not unlike the grief they experience in response to the death of a loved one or another significant loss. By understanding the stages of grief, you can better help children deal with their suffering.

The stages of grieving

In responding to death or significant loss, children experience the same emotions as do adults, but tend to express them in slightly different ways.

Denial and feelings of shock are common at first. Children may act uncomprehending, and escape into fantasy to cope with their pain.

Anger, the second stage of grieving, arises as the reality of the loss sinks in. Children will blame someone or something, perhaps even the deceased. They need a sympathetic ear at this stage.

Guilt usually follows closely on the heels of anger. For example, a child who loses a parent might blame himself or herself for something done months, even years, ago which made the parent upset. Children may even try to bargain with God, as in, "Dear God, if you'll bring Mommy back, I promise to be good and never make her mad again."

Feelings of guilt are almost inevitable when a sibling dies, because the surviving child can usually remember having wished for the sibling's death during past conflicts. We can help children let go of guilt by acknowledging their feelings and gently helping them realize that they played no role in the death.

Acceptance is the culmination of successful grieving. At this point, the child has come to grips with the reality as well as his or her anger and is able to begin adjusting successfully to the loss.

Talking to kids about death

Adults tend to protect children from the facts of death. We mistakenly believe that they aren't emotionally strong enough to deal with death directly. In truth, children are far more resilient and resourceful than we give them credit for.

Regardless, there is no easy way to tell a child that a family member or close friend has died or is going to die, nor any way that's going to prevent tremendous feelings of sadness and pain. The best way to break such news to a child is to be simple and straight forward. "Grandma died last night" is much better than "Grandma left us last night."

What can you say?

Do point out that death is universal and inevitable: Use examples in nature to help the child understand that death eventually occurs to all living things. The child may also need to be told that accident and disease are often unpredictable and unavoidable.

Do say that it's OK to wish the dead person would come back to life: Coming to grips with the pain of permanent separation is what grieving is all about. We can help children to better understand their feelings by reminding them of less painful separations-going to school for the first time, losing a favorite toy, and so on.

Do say that feelings of anger and blame are normal. We should help children express their thoughts so that such feelings don't stagnate internally. A guilty-feeling child may act depressed or withdrawn, and say things like "I'm stupid" or "Nobody likes me." Misbehavior, poor school performance, stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue are all signs of a guilt-feeling child, and indications that the child needs to talk with an understanding adult.

Do reassure the child that one death doesn't mean more are on the way: Fears of death peak around age five or six. When a death occurs in the life of a child of this age, fears that they or other loved ones are going to suddenly die are common. Tell-tale symptoms include clinging to adults, and wanting to stay home from school.


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