Helping Children Understand Grief

A death in the family, or the sudden loss of anybody close to a family, is a cause for grief for anybody. This grief can manifest in a number of ways and is highly specific to the individual person feeling that grief.

Many adults withdraw for a time, they isolate themselves socially or look outwardly sad at things – all of the usual signs of grief that we would expect. Someone may take to substance abuse such as drinking alcohol too much, or become quick to get angry.

But children can present their grief in a wholly different way. Sometimes it does look the same as an adult’s grief, but it often doesn’t. Things such as general ‘non-compliance’, irritability, bad behaviour, or poor grades in school can be assessed as a ‘bad child’ but can actually be symptoms of a child grieving. Similarly, where a child is unlikely to abuse alcohol, they could develop complexes with overeating or undereating as a way to cope.

As we would say with substance abuse in an adult, overeating or undereating isn’t the best way to cope with the stress and anxiety of a loss.

At what age do children grieve?

As mentioned, the actual way that grief is expressed is entirely down to the individual, but what’s often seen is that younger children, usually below the age of 7, are unable to comprehend death and its permanence.

As such, they’re inability to comprehend what has happened may present in them ‘forgetting’ the person who has passed, or otherwise talking about them all the time. They may never cry, or they may cry unexpectedly, with no seeming cause. It really is that variable.

Younger children may use more physical means to express frustration at their grief; they may become physically irritable and unable to sit still, they may begin throwing things, hitting, or exhibiting other unacceptable behaviours.

For older children, usually school-age, they tend to be able to understand what has happened and so will present a more traditional set of behaviours that we would associate with someone being upset. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t also become physically angry or aggressive at unreasonable times – or to an excessive amount.

What to do for a grieving child

The first thing to do with a grieving child is to talk to them in an open, clear, and age-appropriate way. If you keep things secret then it makes children feel like something is being hidden, they then turn to their imagination – which can often be significantly scarier than the reality.

Talking helps to not only articulate feelings and deal with them, but teach children how to work through and process feelings. And you never know, you might be surprised at what your children teach you, too.

Ideally, you need to show them that you can take care of them through reassurance and helping their life to go back to normal as much as possible. This means continuing their routines and actively putting them into familiar settings – such as playing with friends or continuing activities that they love.

When grief lingers, group therapy can be a powerful way to feel safe. It’s comforting to be surrounded by people who feel exactly the same way you do – regardless of how they express themselves.

For younger children who are struggling to verbally articulate their grief, art or music therapy can be exactly what they need to work out frustrations and come to terms with a loss.

What about when grief does not go away?

Just know that feelings of grief can always go away. While you may miss the deceased person for the rest of your life, that doesn’t have to mean holding your life back as a result.

Develop a few rituals to remember the deceased, say every year, and use these to free up your headspace in your daily life. If you or your child are particularly struggling to cope with the grief of a loss, then professional counselling help can be particularly effective to help you get back to normal life.