Grief is the body’s natural response to a loss. Historically, there have been five general stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Going through the five stages can be expected and understood, but the grieving process is individualistic; you can experience one of the stages, all of the stages, or none of the stages because all people deal with loss differently — including children.
According to Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care, the impact of trauma in children depends almost entirely on the life stage that the event occurs during. The same book goes on to say that imposing adult grieving models on children’s lives has led to confusion and a generalized misunderstanding of how children grieve.
Particularly when it comes to coping with death, children have a unique way of processing and dealing with their grief. Oftentimes the first step to helping children grieve is ensuring that they understand the concept of death, and that there aren’t lingering misconceptions. In an article written by Mark Speece, he indicates that a child’s concept of death varies due to an inability to grasp the following terms:
Universality: an understanding that all things that live and, eventually, die.
Irreversibility: an understanding that once something has been declared dead, the death is irrevocable (aside from personal beliefs such as reincarnation, resurrection, etc.).
Non-functionality: an understanding that when someone dies, the life-defining functions of a physical body cease to exist.
Causality: an understanding of the relationship that everything has an origin: cause and effect.
In order to help children grieve, you need to understand the areas in which they are struggling. The same article by Speece elaborates on the terms of death and why children struggle with these concepts:
Universality: children are more likely to think that death is avoidable, and not universal. Overall, an inability to grasp that death can occur at any time, to anyone.
Irreversibility: children are sometimes unable to understand that death is permanent, not temporary or reversible through some means of intervention (either medically, or divine).
Non-functionality: children may have trouble comprehending that someone — or something — that has passed is unable to perform functions (both internally and externally).
Causality: children can oftentimes misunderstand the cause of death by unknowingly creating unrealistic causes of death (i.e. poor behavior), or fixating on specific concrete cases of death specific (poison, precise incidents).
It is important to take an individualized approach to helping children cope with grief. A great way to think of the grieving process is noted in Psychology Today, which says that “grief is like a fingerprint.” Yes, everyone has a fingerprint (like most individuals understand some form of grief) but every fingerprint is unique and unparalleled (similar to how grief varies from person to person).
Empathy and creating an inclusive classroom are some of the top qualities and skills of a good teacher that go hand in hand with helping children cope with grief. While teaching degrees aren’t the same as counseling degrees, it is important for educators to learn how to be attentive to their students both physically and emotionally. Understanding the balance of too much and too little support can seem overwhelming, so creating an understanding of best practices can include the following tips:
Help younger students understand what has happened. While it is not a teacher’s responsibility to have the initial conversation, it is important for educators to reinforce the basic realities of death. Avoid using confusing ways of talking about death such as “passed away” or “deceased;” rather, be direct and reinforce the idea of death by using straight-forward approaches to the topic including words like “death” or “died.”
Reassure students that they can talk with you. Encouraging students and reminding them that they can speak to you openly can be a crucial resource for a grieving student. Leave the invitation open; by leaving the opportunity open, a child can approach and talk when they feel ready with little to no pressure.
Allow students to grieve in the manner that they choose. Some students will want to confide in anyone listening, while others would rather keep to themselves. Avoid making suggestions on how a student should grieve, and avoid telling a student they cannot grieve a certain way. How they cope may be extreme, but there are ways to manage extreme student behaviors.
Communicate with parents to get insight into the situation as a whole. Positive parent-teacher communication is crucial for the entirety of the education, but also specifically for insight into how the student functions best. Let the parents know of the various counseling resources available for the students, but also ask questions about how the child responds best, what things may evoke feelings, etc.
Provide structure and learning support groups. Keeping a child busy with structured activities can help students grieve while they are also learning. There is a lot going through a child’s mind at any given moment (especially following a loss), so it is important to offer alternative learning spaces such as tutoring, additional support, as well as flexibility surrounding deadlines and normal educational expectations.
Parents have a steep responsibility in helping their children grieve. While a parent cannot take away feelings of loss, they can help build healthy coping skills alongside being a key figure to confide in. If you have more than one child, it becomes exceedingly important to keep in mind that grieving may look different between children. Regardless of how young or old the child is, it is important to consider a variety of coping methods that can help. Parents should consider the following:
Be direct and honest. Anything less than the truth and the absolute truth can cause more harm than good. Just as stated above, children often misunderstand death, so it is important to be literal. This does not mean you have to do so in a blunt, inconsiderate manner, but rather avoid euphemisms that downplay or muffle the concept of death. If this is the initial time that the topic of death is brought up, this is especially important.
Be developmentally considerate. How you approach helping a 17-year-old may look entirely different than how you attempt to help a 10-year-old.
Encourage questions. One way to help get an understanding of aspects that a child is struggling with, is to encourage them to ask questions. Encourage them to always ask questions as they arise.
Encourage feelings. It is important to encourage children to express their feelings. Since everyone grieves differently it is important not to critique the manner in which someone may choose to grieve. While it may not make sense to you, the child is vulnerable, and criticism may make them feel like they are wrong in doing so.
Validate feelings. When a child expresses anger or frustration, support and acknowledge their feelings and reiterate that their feelings are completely okay, valid, and maybe even shared. Creating an atmosphere where feelings are normal is critical.
Communicate with other adults. Explain the current situation to others when the child(ren) is out of your care (e.g. teacher, dance instructor, coach, etc.). Creating an open communication channel for people in authority can give them insight into why behavior may be happening, as well as giving the individual time to prepare ways they can help the child grieve. When you don’t communicate these things, you can be doing your child (and whoever the individual is) a disservice.
Lead by example. Do not try and hide your grief. Be expressive, and grieve alongside them. Acting tough and avoiding the pain you are feeling can make a child feel that they need to do the same thing. In some cases, it can be reassuring for children to see that being upset is okay. This also gives you the opportunity to show a child (or children) healthy ways of dealing with grief.
Elementary-age children — typically ages 5 to 12 have unique emotional needs when it comes to dealing with grief. Although teachers with elementary education degrees are trained specifically to work with children in this age range, not every adult is. During this period, a large hurdle can be introducing the concept of death. Children struggling with grief within this age group may ask questions about the deceased individual such as “When is ___ coming home?” or “Where is ___?” so it is important to be ready about how you plan to approach that conversation. Some tips to consider when helping elementary-age children cope with grief are:
Reiterate that the death happened. Sometimes elementary-age children need to be reminded time after time that the person isn’t coming back.
Avoid half-telling, or half-truths when talking about loss. The time is confusing enough, so be direct.
Pay attention to children that are grieving by distancing themselves.
Encourage children to talk about it, or ask questions. Create an understanding that it is important to talk about death.
The following are common symptoms of grief in elementary-age children, regardless of the type of loss:
Change in energy
Middle school-aged children become more and more fixated on observing how other people are responding to death. They may pose questions such as “Are you okay?” and “How are you doing with everything?” while worrying less and less about themselves. It is common for individuals to mimic the mannerisms or role that the deceased individual had. They also may ask extreme questions surrounding death such as “If I do ___ will I die?” or “What if ___ happens?”
The following are common symptoms of grief for middle-school children regardless of the type of loss:
It is common for high schoolers going through the grieving process to isolate themselves; in fact, they may appear like their normal self. They feel that expressing a certain emotion is a sign of weakness. This can become exceedingly true if they have younger siblings, or are considered the “man” or “woman” of the house. They feel new responsibilities, and will oftentimes distance themselves both from their feelings and people. Phrases such as “I’m fine,” or “Stop worrying about me,” are common.
The following are common symptoms of grief for high school children regardless of the type of loss:
Lack of academic drive
Trouble in school
Emotional outbursts and extremes
Lack of motivation
The loss of a good friend can feel the same — if not worse — than the loss of a family member. It is important not to downplay this death as anything less than the loss of a family member. If the death was sudden and unexpected, a lot of questions can arise, and a child's stress level can spike drastically. When a child loses a friend, it is important to address the situation. Call attention to what happened, then use your body language, and verbal language to indicate that you are there to listen, to answer questions, and to be a shoulder to cry on.
The loss of a family member can oftentimes be one of the hardest and most traumatic experiences that a child goes through. The important thing to consider is the relationship of that family member, and how close they were (both locationally, and relationally), can make a large difference in how to cope with the death. You can expect that when a mother — that is part of the child’s everyday life — dies, it will evoke a different response and set of needs than when a great aunt that the child(ren) had only met once passes. Be direct when having conversations about the family members death. Be okay with silence. You do not need to force conversation, and giving time to process things can give children time to feel, ask questions, and express themselves.
The relationship between a child and their pet is something that is truly unique and one-of-a-kind. In some cases, the pet may have been their very first friend in life. Many children feel guilty for the death of a pet, and they obsess over things that they could have done differently to avoid the death. Sometimes the loss of a pet can be a more intense grieving process than the loss of a human. There are some things you can do to help a child with their pet loss, these include:
Avoid downplaying the loss of a pet. This may be the first experience with loss, and this type of loss can be deep, personal, or could be emotionally hurtful for a child.
Talk to the child about their feelings surrounding the loss. Ask questions, encourage the child to ask questions as well
Create a memorial (e.g. burial ceremony, sit around telling stories, make a memorial clay paw mold, etc.).
If you choose to get another pet, let the child know (no matter how long ago the death occurred) that the new pet will never replace the old pet.
The loss of a classmate or teacher can be a very traumatic event for a child. Whether in high school or preschool, these are the faces that they spend the majority of the day with. Teachers and classmates can both have big impacts on the life of a child, so it is important to treat the loss of a classmate or teacher like any other type of loss.
Be direct and be patient, allowing them time to think and to ask questions. Encourage conversation, ask them about their relationship, and just be there for them.
When a child loses someone as a result of suicide, there are specific, unique concerns to bear in mind that vary depending on the age of the children. The importance of mental health awareness in schools is crucial, and so is talking about mental health awareness at home. In an article titled “Experts Explain How to Talk About Suicide With Kids By Age, Deborah Dilboa claims that it is important to talk about suicide with children for three reasons:
Children deserve truth. Lying or hiding the truth from children in order to protect them can cause more harm than good in the long run.
Mental health conditions can be genetic, so if a family member takes their own life, it becomes exceedingly important to talk about mental health, and give children accurate information.
Hearing (and talking) about suicide and its impact on others is something that is good for all individuals to talk about — regardless of whether a suicide has pressured the conversation.
The same article goes on to give tips and suggestions for talking about suicide with children by age. The breakdown goes as follows:
Preschool - Kindergarten: Stick to the basics and keep it simple. Providing the foundations of what suicide is, and the specifics of the occurrence is not necessary at this age unless they are explicitly asking.
Ages 7 - 10: Offer truthful, concise answers. This is still considered an age group that doesn’t need all the details, but this is a good time to introduce suicide as someone dying from a disease, or an illness stemming from depression. This age needs truth, but not an overwhelming amount.
Ages 11 - 14: Be more direct and concrete. Talking about suicide during this age is more crucial because pre-teens are starting to become more aware, and some are experiencing mental health issues, or mood dysregulation that elicits some sort of conversation. Enter the questions by asking the child what they understand about the situation, and enter the conversation where they are.
Ages 15 - 18: This is the age where you switch from hypotheticals. Using phrasing such as “if you or a friend” changes to “when you or a friend.” During this age, teens are often distant and do not want to talk to parents about this, but so it becomes important for parents to let teens know that their feelings are completely normal, as well as offering resources available to them (e.g. counselors, family friends, prevention centers, etc.).
If you — or someone you know — are at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “TALK” to 741741.
Coping with loss when an individual has witnessed death takes special considerations, tips, and approaches. Regardless of age, children may experience the following effects from the trauma of witnessing death:
Loss of interest in hobbies
Coping with these various effects requires extra reassurance and support following the traumatic event. Helping children cope with trauma should include the following considerations:
Minimize media exposure: The media can often cover material in a way that is more traumatizing for children. Avoid exposure to graphic images and videos, and if your child seems interested in the media’s coverage, watch alongside and fill in contextually as needed.
Engage your child: While you cannot force a child to talk, you can provide structure in order to be a key part of emotional healing. Provide ongoing opportunities to talk and encourage conversation while validating feelings. By and large, create a safe area to feel, express, and ask questions.
Encourage physical activity: Burning off adrenaline, and releasing endorphins (caused by physical exertion) can help children sleep better at night as well as help taking a child's mind off of the traumatic event.
Create a healthy diet: Nourishing the body in a healthy manner affects an individual's mood and ability to cope with the stresses of a traumatic event. Cook more meals from home to promote whole, minimally-processed food. In doing so, more opportunities for conversation arise, and you can promote healthy food choices by eating the same diet.
A death — no matter the type of loss — can be emotionally draining, confusing, and frustrating for a child. While addressing the loss of a relationship, you need to address certain feelings. It becomes exceedingly important to know of the different emotional needs of grieving children to be aware of. Like dealing with all types of grief, the emotions that children feel following loss vary from person to person, but the following are common emotional needs of children that warrant addressing:
Acknowledging and validating these feelings is important to help these feelings turn into something positive. As current research evaluates stress and mental health of Generation Z, it’s obvious that mental health is of vital importance and it’s crucial to learn to validate and accept emotions to help younger generations. These are the feelings that they are experiencing following the loss of a loved one, so it is important to normalize them, be mindful, and encourage conversation surrounding each.
There are many efforts that a parent, teacher, or another figure of authority can do to help a child who is experiencing grief. Each grieving process is individualized, and ongoing, so it is important to be aware of the ways you can contribute to the healthy management of childhood grief.
How to have a conversation about grief.
How a child reacts to having a conversation about grief will always vary, so regardless of how children grieve, there are ways parents and other adults can support them. According to a document written by American Academy of Pediatrics, “After a Loved One Dies -- How Children Grieve and How Parents and Other Adults Can Support Them,” they write that while explaining death to children:
Speak frankly and directly. Use word choice such as “dead” or “died.”
Check back with your kids after giving them some time to process in order to make things exceedingly clear.
If a child seems reluctant to talk, respect their space and check back later.
Encourage feelings and questions.
Allow all expressions.
Coping with loss in the short-term.
Coping with loss in the short-term may entail things such as conversational coping. The beginning stages are generally focused on creating understanding, grieving, and processing. These short-term stages are the foundational pieces that create the basis for healthy coping mechanisms, and for the groundwork leading into long-term coping strategies.
Coping with loss in the long-term.
Long-term coping strategies for loss are focused on moving on, healing, and creating normalcy. This stage is less involved with creating the foundational pillars, and focuses more on moving on. This phase often includes counseling, new hobbies, reminiscing, re-visiting a gravesite/spreading ashes (if applicable) and other steps towards letting go.
There are various resources that are important to be aware of when learning how to manage childhood grief in a healthy manner. Some examples include:
National Alliance for Grieving Children: a list of resources direct at helping grieving children and teens.
Healing Hearts Connection: a camp that brings together various families struggling with loss to go through it with other people in a isolating camp-style atmosphere.
Comfort Zone Camp: a haven for children to experience camp alongside peers that are grieving a loss as well.
Sesame Street in Communities: Helping Kids Grieve: an array of resources designed for children to grieve including videos, journal sessions, art and any other means of expression.
The Shared Grief Project: an array of first-person accounts of grief that is designed to provide children with multiple perspectives of hope and happiness after loss.
If you’re studying to become a teacher or if you’re a parent, it’s important to be as prepared as possible to help children. Particularly when it comes to grief and death, these situations can creep up unexpectedly, so it’s important to be prepared before that happens.