Tips for Guiding Children through Grief
The following tips were developed based on research and practice among children’s grief support professionals and volunteers. It is important to note that grief reactions in children are varied, wide ranging and unique to each individual. These tips offer a helpful guide for providing understanding and compassion to children living with grief.
- Be Patient. The emotions of the grieving process are natural and expected, even for children. When the death of someone significant occurs it is normal for them to struggle. Bereavement is not a problem to be fixed for a child; it is an experience they are living. Children need adults to be patient with them as they adjust to these changes.
- Children Grieve Differently. Each child’s grief experience is unique. Age, stage of development, cultural and social experiences and his or her relationship with the deceased are important factors that shape the way children experience and express their grief. Reactions vary from sadness, anger, fear, guilt and even relief. It is important to listen to children, meet them on their terms and come to understand their unique grief reactions. Remember that children “revisit” their grief as they grow up. With maturity they will understand more, experience changing emotions and ask different questions.
- Create New Traditions. Rituals can provide your family tangible ways to acknowledge your grief and honor the memory of those who have died. Lighting candles, recognizing special occasions, sharing stories about those who have died or volunteering with a local charity as a family are some of the ways you can incorporate new traditions or rituals.
- Honesty is the Best Policy. Children need to know the truth. Most parents and caregivers would agree that they would prefer that their children not have to deal with the difficult truths that might accompany a death. Unfortunately, in doing so, we often create other problems. Although it may be challenging to share the truth about how someone died, honest answers build trust, help provide understanding and allow children to feel comfortable approaching us with questions because they know they can trust us to tell them the truth.
- Don’t Avoid It, Talk About It. Grieving children often feel alone and misunderstood. Many well-meaning adults avoid talking about the deceased person in fear that doing so will exacerbate the grief children are experiencing. In doing so, children might feel as though talking about or even expressing their grief is not acceptable. When children feel understood by family and friends and when they have the opportunity to express their grief in their own unique way, they feel less alone and, in turn, fare better than they would otherwise.
- Provide the Chance to Connect. Greater than any education, information or advice we can give to children who are grieving is to allow them to connect with other children going through a similar experience. It is also important for children to have adults in their lives who provide a safe environment that is consistent, teaches resilience and encourages accountability, while allowing children the freedom to express their grief.
- You’re Not Alone. Parents and caregivers of grieving children do not have to be alone. There are many resources available online and local grief support programs for bereaved children.
To find local children’s grief support programs visit www.ChildrenGrieve.org/find-support.
Ms. Jensen is a leading advocate for families and children and was the founder and president of ACES, The Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.
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