Eight tips for helping kids grieve

The month of May is mental health month so we have asked some of our experts from our pediatric psychology department to guest blog throughout the month about issues related to kids and mental health! Be sure to check back each week for a new topic!

Working in a children’s hospital, I see many kids come in with injuries and illnesses that can cause a lot of physical pain. If you think back to a time when you were injured, you might recall an initial feeling of numbness and shock at what just happened. Then, the pain hit and may have even felt quite unbearable at times. You may have begun to worry about whether you were going to be okay. When you got help and aid for the injury, you began to feel better and your wound started to heal. There may always be a scar or the area may always feel a bit tender and sensitive. Although you might wish you never had the experience, you got through it and feel like a stronger person because of it.

The experience of grief and loss for children is similar to having a physical injury. When a loved one dies, it is natural to feel sadness, pain, and many other emotions. These feelings will come and go throughout the rest of a person’s life. At times, the pain and emotions are strong and intense. At other times, the feelings are more manageable. While the emotional wound of losing someone you love can be deep, there are ways to support a healing process to mend the wound and help children cope with their emotions. A scar will always remain and pain and sadness will resurface at times, but with support, children can find ways to keep living and loving in spite of loss.

Eight tips for supporting children through their grief process:

  1. Use concrete words like death, died, and dying. Young children may become confused with other terms such as gone or sleeping.
  2. Children may need information repeated over and over again as they are trying to make sense of it all. Be honest and provide information in terms they can understand. Use the opportunity to talk about the family’s faith, spirituality, and beliefs about life and death.
  3. Give children choices about their involvement in funerals, rituals, etc. If they choose to participate, spend time before the event talking through what will be happening and answering questions they may have.
  4. Encourage children to talk about their thoughts and feelings, but do not force it. Inform them that you are ready to listen when they are ready to talk.
  5. It is okay to cry and show emotion in front of children. This will model to your child that his/her feelings are normal and allowed.
  6. Make available physical outlets for letting out feelings, such as playing sports, hitting a pillow, or going to the playground. Some children also prefer to express emotions through journaling or artwork.
  7. Share memories and encourage others to share memories of the loved one with your child. Give your child something tangible that belonged to the loved one to keep.
  8. Find ways to keep the memory of the loved one alive through special activities on anniversary dates, birthdays, and other special occasions. Although death has changed the relationship with the loved one, the bond will always remain.

While it can be helpful to find distraction from painful feelings at times, it is important to remember that children can also find relief from confronting grief-related feelings. Author Earl Grollman stated, “Grief is not a disorder, disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

Some children find it helpful to work through their journey of grief by attending a grief support group. Such groups provide a place where kids can meet others with similar experiences so they don’t feel so alone and different. They also provide the opportunity to express feelings and memorialize loved ones through grief games, arts and crafts, and other activities.

For more information about children’s grief, visit The National Alliance for Grieving Children at www.childrengrieve.org. Information about a local grief support group, Oak Tree Corner, can be found at www.oaktreecorner.org or by calling (937) 285-0199.

By: Candace Beck, Psy.D.

Dr. Beck psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital. She received her degree from Wright State University School of Professional Psychology. She is part of the pain management team at the hospital where she helps children learn behavioral skills for coping with chronic pain. Dr. Beck also has an interest in working with grieving children and fostering their resilience. She completed her doctoral dissertation on the topic of sibling bereavement and is an active volunteer at Oak Tree Corner in Dayton.

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