child with hands over eyes

Helping children deal with grief

Clearly, this is a very difficult subject area for a parent, teacher or head of school. However, it is one of vital importance, and one that needs to be handled with the utmost care and understanding.

It is true that most children experience death on some level, from the loss of a pet to having watched characters die in films or cartoons. However, experiencing death at first hand is a very different reality.

It is of the utmost importance that all of those closely connected to a child or young adult who is experiencing grief are able to offer their emotional support and a safe space to talk. Allowing the child to express their emotions unencumbered and freely will help them to develop the coping strategies that are unique to them.

A child’s age also determines how they express their grief. Older children may express themselves in a similar way to adults and show signs of sadness, whereas younger children may complain of headaches.

It is important as an adult to understand a child’s ability to understand the concept of death.

  • From birth to two years, research has shown that infants of this age have no understanding of death. However, they are aware of separation and will grieve the absence of a parent or caregiver.
  • Children from 3-6 years are curious about death and believe it is temporary or reversible. A child of this age may worry about who will take care of them and are very affected by the sadness of surviving family members.
  • Once children are between the ages of six and 12, it has been evidenced that they understand that death is final, and that it happens to everyone.
  • From the age of 13 upwards, teenagers and young adults do have an adult understanding of the concept of death and its finality. However, they do not possess the coping skills or behaviour of an adult.

As with everything in life, we need to take care to explain death, and talk about it with children on an age-appropriate level. Remember that children and young adults do not have the same thought-processing ability as adults, therefore, short and simple conversations repeated are of high value.

Use the correct language such as ‘died’, encourage them to talk about how that makes them feel and ask if they have any questions. Help your child to understand that death is a process of life, and that grief is painful and makes one sad, but that all of this is normal and to be expected. Reinforce that it is OK to cry and that adults also grieve and cry.

Dealing with the emotional effect of loss and grief is about making your child feel both safe and secure. As parents, that is always our constant and ongoing role and responsibility to our children. Of course, there is always support available. Let your child’s school know if your family has suffered a loss. Grief councillors and psychologists are readily available if you feel that your child would benefit from visiting one.

There is no right or wrong way for a child, young adult or adult to grieve. What is important is finding and putting into place the right support.

Children are often the forgotten grievers – David Kessler

By Penelope Best, Head of School,
Eupheus International School, Loulé