Helping Children Understand Grief and Loss

Posted by Jill Lewolt on

Experiencing the loss of a loved one becomes even more difficult when there is a child you must help through the grief process. When you are emotionally exhausted, it is normal to feel incapable of helping your child. Here are a few suggestions for talking about loss and grief with children. 

Avoid overly abstract or spiritual explanations.
If we tell children, “Your grandpa is no longer with us,” they will be inclined to wonder where he is and when he will be with us again. They might desire to go find him and be with him. Statements like “God needed Grandpa more than we did” can be confusing to kids and also inaccurate. It might sound nice and comforting, but it can be potentially harmful to the child’s view of God. Children have a hard time understanding the finality of death. For this reason, it is important to use the words “died” and “death” in place of words like “gone, went home, and lost.”

Keep explanations and answers simple and truthful.
As age-appropriately as possible, share a complete story with your child so that they do not make up details with their imagination about what happened. By sharing truthfully with your child they will know and trust that you will be honest with them, and feel comfortable coming to you with any questions. As they ask questions, be careful to only answer what they have asked. Overwhelming them with added details will make it harder for them to process their own thoughts.

Instead of saying, “Uncle Jim got in an accident today and he didn’t make it” you can say, “Today, when Uncle Jim was driving to work, he was on the freeway and another car smashed into his car. His body was very hurt and the organs inside his body could not be fixed. The doctors at the hospital tried so hard to fix his organs, but they couldn’t and he died at the hospital.” 

Provide security for their physical needs.
Children will wonder who else is going to die, will I still get to live in my house, will we still have enough food to eat, etc. Addressing their physical needs in the future will bring them comfort and establish a sense of normalcy in their changing world. Listening to your child will help to address the things that are causing them the most worry. Do not treat their emotional needs the same way, as they are not predicable. Empathize with the emotions they are expressing, but try not to say things like, “You will be happy again soon” or “You’ll probably feel sad for a very long time” because it can confuse the child or set up an expectation about how they should be feeling.

Keep in mind:

  • Children will ask the same questions repeatedly as their brain processes and understands the information. Be patient with them in answering, because they are not being disrespectful or forgetful.
  • Children move in and out of grief fluidly. Your child might sob in one moment and then want to play tag the next. This is very normal and part of their grieving process. Children have a hard time articulating their emotions, but their behavior and the way that they play will demonstrate what they are feeling. Be sensitive and remember there is no standard for a grieving child.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

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