School-Aged Children and Grief

Healing the Grieving Child’s Heart

By Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D

Editor’s note: In the past, Dr. Wolfelt has shared with us his concerns for bereaved children. This article is excerpted from one of Dr. Wolfelt’s books, Healing the Grieving Child’s Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends and Caregivers. In this article, Dr. Wolfelt introduces the topic and describes the child’s six needs of mourning.

Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we experience when someone loved dies. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Mourning is necessary for healing to take place.

I often refer to children as “forgotten mourners.” Why? Because though all children grieve when someone loved dies, we (as a society, as families, and often as individuals) don’t always encourage them to mourn. You can help the grieving child you love by encouraging her to mourn. You can be the person she feels “safe” to mourn in the presence of.

Carpe diem (“seize the day,” “take action”): Think about your own experiences with grief. Did you mourn? If so, what ways of mourning were helpful to you?

Kids mourn more through behaviors than words. Often grieving children don’t talk and talk about their feelings. Instead, they act them out. For example, the child may act mopey and lethargic but may not have the words to pinpoint how he’s feeling or why, specifically, he’s feeling that way. Watch for mourning behaviors in kids. A child who is feeling confused might get upset easily. A child who is angry about the death might misbehave or pick fights with other kids. Children also mourn through their play. Watch for their feelings to come out in the ways they pretend, relate to other kids, physically move, create artwork, etc.

Carpe diem: Spend some time simply observing the grieving child today. What can you learn by watching him just “be”?

1. Acknowledge the reality of the death

The child must gently confront the reality that someone she loved is dead and will never physically be present to her again. Children tend to accept the reality of a death in “doses.” That is, they let in just a little of the pain at a time then return to their play or other distractions. This “dosing” of grief is not only normal but necessary, for it makes the early days of grief bearable. Help the child understand what “dead” physically means. Explain that the body can no longer think, feel, hear, breathe, etc. and will never be “alive” again. Whether the death was sudden or anticipated, the child may take years to fully integrate the reality of the loss. As she gets older and matures developmentally, the death will take on new layers of meaning and greater depth.

Carpe diem: Today, talk about the physical reality of the death. Make sure the child understands how and why the person died.

2. Feel the pain of the loss

Like all mourners, children need to embrace the pain of the loss. Fortunately, most children haven’t yet learned how to repress or deny their feelings. If they’re sad, they generally allow themselves to be sad. You can help by encouraging the child to talk about his painful thoughts and feelings and by being a nonjudgmental listener. You can also model your own grief feelings. If you’re sad, express your sadness in the child’s presence. Children will naturally “dose” their pain. Support this child as he allows his pain in, little by little.

Carpe diem: The next time the child cries, resist the natural urge to encourage him to stop crying. Instead, hold him gently and let him cry as long and as hard (and as often) as he wants to.

3. Remember the person who died

When someone loved dies, they live on in us through memory. Grieving children need to actively remember the person who died and help commemorate the life that was lived. Never try to take away a child’s memories in a misguided attempt to save her from pain. It’s good for the child to continue to look at photos or videotapes of the person who died. It’s good for her to share stories of the person’s life and to hear other people talk about the person who died, too. Remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.

Carpe diem: Invite the child to tell you about a memory of the person who died. Or ask the child to show you a snapshot of the person who died, then tell you what was going on when the picture was taken.

4. Develop a new self-identity

Part of the child’s self-identity was formed by the relationship he had with the person who died. Maybe he had a father, and now he doesn’t. Or maybe he was a big brother and now his younger sibling has died. How has the child’s sense of who he is changed as a result of this death? No one can “fill in” for the person who died. Don’t try to find a substitute father/best friend/ grandparent/ etc. for the child, at least not in the early months after the death. Supportive relationships—yes. Replacements—no. Sometimes grieving children are encouraged to take on roles and tasks that belonged to the person who died; yet forcing children to take on adult responsibilities will only hinder their healing and steal their childhood from them.

Carpe diem: Ask the child to draw two pictures: one of his life before the death and one of his life after the death. Then talk with him about the differences depicted in the pictures.

5. Search for meaning

When someone loved dies, we naturally question the meaning and purpose of life. Children tend to do this very simply through questions such as, “Why do people die?” and “What happens to people after they die?” and “Can Grandma go bowling in Heaven?” Grieving kids will only feel free to ask these questions of adults whom they trust. Also be on the watch for the child’s search for meaning in her play. Don’t try to have answers to all the child’s questions about the meaning of life. It’s okay—even desirable—to admit that you struggle with the same issues.

Carpe diem: Share your beliefs about life and death and spirituality with the child without pressures the child to believe what you believe.

6. Receive ongoing support from caring adults

Grief is a process—not an event. Children, like adults, will grieve long after the person has died. The grieving child needs your compassionate support and presence not only in the days and weeks following the death, but in the months and years to come. As they grow and mature developmentally, children will naturally grieve the death on new and ever-deeper levels. If you can help the grieving child mourn as the need arises (even years after the death), you will be helping her grow into a healthy, loving adult.

Carpe diem: Create a plan to help this child throughout the next year. Mark regular dates to contact and spend time with her in your daily planner. Don’t forget important dates, such as the child’s birthday and the anniversary of the death.

7. Include the Child in Planning and Carrying Out the Funeral

Attending the funeral of someone loved is more than a privilege, it is a right, and anyone who loved the person who died should be encouraged to attend—even children. Children often don’t know what to expect from a funeral. You can help by explaining what will happen before, during, and after the ceremony. Let the child’s questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion. Grieving kids often feel as if their feelings “matter” when they can share a favorite memory or read a special poem as part of the funeral. Shyer children can participate by lighting a candle or placing something special (a memento, photo or drawing, for example) in or on the casket.

Carpe diem (“seize the day,” “take action”): If the funeral has already taken place, talk to the child about his experience with the ceremony. Help answer lingering questions and discuss ongoing way for him to honor the person who died.

8. Help the child choose a keepsake

Following a death, survivors are often faced with the task of sorting through and disposing of the belongings of the person who died. Children should be included in this process when possible. Ask the grieving child if she would like to keep anything that belonged to the person who died. If the person who died was especially significant in her young life, you may want to box up other items and save them for appropriate times later in the child’s life. Sometimes keepsakes can be stored in a “memory box” created especially for the child.

Carpe diem: Today, talk to the child about keepsakes. If she has already selected one, ask her about its significance. If she hasn’t, help her to make a plan for choosing and procuring one.

9. Give the child permission to find comfort in “linking objects”

“Linking objects” are simply items in which the child takes comfort that belonged to the person who died. They offer him a physical “link” to the person who died. Embrace the child’s need to carry around or hold such linking objects. They help him feel closer to the person who died and provide some sense of safety and security. You may want to give the child a special linking object – maybe something he can wear like an article of clothing or a piece of costume jewelry.

Carpe diem: Does this child rely on a linking object right now? If so, talk to him about its significance. Affirm his need to have and hold this object.

10. Consider the child’s relationship to the person who died

Each child’s response to a death depends largely upon the relationship she had with the person who died. For example, children will naturally grieve differently the deaths of a parent, a classmate and a grandparent. The closer the child felt to the person who died, the more difficult her grief is likely to be. Ambivalent or conflicted relationships can also complicate grief.

Carpe diem: Think about the child’s relationship with the person who died – from her point of view. Set aside your own thoughts and feelings and enter her world as you consider this point.

If a child’s parent has died, consider this…

The parent-child bond may be the strongest and most significant in life. When this bond is severed by death, the grieving child needs ample love and support. Perhaps the most important influence on the child’s grief journey will be the response of the surviving parent or other important adults in the child’s life. While they cannot ignore their own grief and mourning, they must focus as much as possible on helping the child mourn. For the child, this death often results in many losses in addition to the loss of the parent, such as loss of financial stability or loss of a home and neighborhood friends if the family has to move.

Carpe diem: If the child’s parent has died, help him capture his memories. Ask him to tell you about the parent, then help him write down his memories. He will treasure this record later in life.

If a child’s sibling has died, consider this…

The death of a sibling is often among the most traumatic events in a child’s life. Siblings’ normal feelings for one another include not only love but anger, jealousy and other ambivalent emotions. When a sibling dies, the surviving kid(s) sometimes feel:

  • Guilt (because at one time or another, they may have wished the sibling were gone).
  • Relief (because now they don’t have to share or vie for attention).
  • Fear (because now they know they could die, too).
  • Confusion (because they’re unsure if they’re still a brother or sister).

All of these feelings are normal. You can help by listening or observing non-judgmentally as the child expresses them.

Carpe diem: If the child’s sibling has died, help him write a poem in the sibling’s honor. Have him write the sibling’s name vertically on a piece of paper, and then begin each line of his poem with the corresponding letter.

If a child’s grandparent has died, consider this…

When a grandparent dies, the grandchildren may or may not actively mourn. The intensity of their feelings depends on the closeness of the relationship they had with the grandparent who died. Sometimes when older people die, we deny or minimize our grief (and that of our children) because “it was time” or “he lived a long, full life.” Even when these statements are true, we need to mourn and so do our children. The death of a grandparent or great-grandparent is often the first death a child experiences. Now is a good time to teach the child about funerals, spiritual beliefs regarding death and healthy mourning habits.

Carpe diem: If the grandparent died of age-related causes, make sure the child understands what happens to the human body as it gets old. Children understand the natural cycle of life and death.

If a child’s friend has died, consider this…

Children aren’t supposed to die; we all feel that the natural order of life has been violated when a young person dies. When a peer dies, children not only lose the presence of someone they enjoyed spending time with, they also lose their sense of immortality. Now they know that they, too, could die at a young age. As with all types of deaths, be honest with the grieving child about how and why the friend has died. Don’t hide or sugarcoat facts in an attempt to save the child from pain. Often, a child’s imagination can conjure up explanations much scarier than reality.

Carpe diem: Help the child make a poster or collage about the child who died. The child may want to hang the poster in his bedroom or present it to the parents of the child who died.