How to Help Children Cope with Grief
For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
As we grieve the death of a loved one, we may be hit by some of the most intense feelings we have ever experienced. As C.S. Lewis accurately phrased it – it is as though we are going in circles; we find ourselves spiralling downwards again just when we thought we have moved on. Little mundane things in our daily life can easily trigger emotions of grief; their favourite ice cream, the song they loved, or the scent of their perfume.
Adults are equipped with some coping mechanisms: maturity, the ability to regulate emotions, and a better understanding of death. On the other hand, children may experience heightened emotions and challenges and find it difficult to communicate and express their feelings (Traeger, 2011). Extensive research highlights the distinct experience of grief between adults and children, and it would be unwise to treat both the same (Himebauch, Arnold & May, 2008; Brimley, 2019). Therefore, as parents, we need to (1) understand how grief affects children, and (2) how we can offer our support and care.
How Does Grief Affect Children?
Grief is not only in the form of the loss of a loved one. Divorce, moving to a different place, the death of a pet, and being away from a parent are circumstances that can result in grief in children (Wood, 2008). Therefore, it is crucial to recognise the symptoms of grief and address them appropriately and timely. Below are some observable signs that your child is grieving.
How Can We Help Children Cope with Grief?
Sweeping the issue of loss and death under the rug because it is difficult to bring up is unhelpful. Helping your child to understand the concept of death or the deceased individual is a step towards reconciling with the loss. Helping your children cope with grief will enable your child to learn how to deal with their emotions healthily and not adopt maladaptive coping strategies. Here are some ways you can journey with your children through grief.
Take Care of Yourself
While it may be natural to focus solely on your child during a time of loss, addressing your own grief is critical in the healing process (Traeger, 2011; Morin, 2021). Leaving unresolved feelings unattended can translate negatively to how you interact with your child. Being honest that you are grieving and hurting helps normalise grief and show your child that they are not experiencing sorrow alone. Seek professional help when your grief starts to feel overwhelming.
Maintain Normal Routines
Ensure that after experiencing loss, your child keeps to a regular daily routine – going to school, having a fixed sleeping schedule, and sticking to regular mealtimes. Consistency and routines will help to provide a sense of safety, comfort, and security for your child (Traeger, 2011).
Spending One-to-One Time with Your Child
Parental warmth is vital during this trying time. Encourage open communication and provide emotional support to your child. Through one-to-one communication, the child can openly talk about their emotions, and studies have underscored the positive outcomes such interactions bring (Koblenz, 2016). Furthermore, they feel valued and prioritised (Lancia, 2021). You can put aside brief (15 minutes), regular periods of time to spend with your child and provide them with your undivided attention (Haine et al., 2008).
Provide Opportunities for Children to Express Themselves
Through opportunities such as physical, creative, and play activities, children can express themselves and work through their grieving process. You can provide them with a diary to journal or draw out their thoughts and emotions instead of bottling them up inside (Lancia, 2021; Traeger, 2011).
Dealing with your own grief is difficult as it is. Having to take care of your child during this trying period is undeniably challenging and unpredictable. Know that you are not alone, and be sure to seek help for yourself and your child if needed.
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Written by Tan Kai Qing, Intern, Fei Yue Community Services
Brimley, M.C. (2019). Children process grief differently than adults. Here’s what parents need to know. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/11/01/children-process-grief-differently-than-adults-heres-what-parents-need-know/
Haine, R. A., Ayers, T. S., Sandler, I. N., & Wolchik, S. A. (2008). Evidence-Based Practices for Parentally Bereaved Children and Their Families. Professional psychology, research and practice, 39(2), 113–121. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.39.2.113
Himebauch, A., Arnold, R. M., & May, C. (2008). Grief in children and developmental concepts of death #138. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 11(2), 242-244. https://doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2008.9973
Koblenz, J. (2016). Growing from grief: Qualitative experiences of parental loss. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 73(3), 203-230. https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222815576123
Lancia, G. (2021). Coping With Grief for Children: 6 Books & Tips to Support Kids. Positive Psychology. Retrieved from: https://positivepsychology.com/grief-for-children/#children
Morin, A. (2021). Signs of Grief in Children and How to Help Them Cope. Very Well Family. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellfamily.com/signs-of-grief-in-children-and-how-to-help-them-cope-4174245
Wood, F. B. (2008). Grief helping young children cope. YC Young Children, 63(5), 28-31.
Traeger, J. (2011). Patient information. supporting your grieving child. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 14(1), 116-117. https://doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2010.9736