For adults, it can be hard to comprehend the death of an important person in our lives. We stumble through feelings of confusion, disbelief, and sadness. Sometimes we experience anger, guilt, or regret. There are moments when we feel like we’re finding our way forward and other times when it seems like we are right back to square one. Grief is complex and at times, overwhelming.
If grief can be that overwhelming for us as adults, imagine what it must feel like for a child?
Children do not have the life experience we do as adults. They may not have had much exposure to the permanency that comes with loss. Often children don’t know how to handle the mixed up feelings that they are having—or even how to describe them. Many children experience grief through physical symptoms, like stomachaches or headaches. They might have difficulty with parts of their routines—like sleeping or eating. Some youth experience temporary changes in their academic performance while others may have increased needs for being close, fears about safety, or worries that something else might happen in their family.
So, what helps? Parents and other supportive adults often express fears that they don’t know how to support kids and teens through grief.
There are no perfect words. Be honest and caring. Let the children in your life know that you are available to them—for support, to help answer questions, to do something fun.
Remember that all grief reactions are okay. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Each person will experience their own mourning process. Feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, regret, numbness, guilt and fear are often a part of the routine. It is important to support kids and teens in finding safe, and healthy, outlets for big feelings.
Offer opportunities for sharing. Continue to offer chances to share as time passes. Sharing yourself can be an effective way to communicate that it is okay to talk about this important loss: “I’m really missing your mom today” or “Whenever I eat this meal I think of your uncle—we used to cook it together.”
Think creatively. Involve children and teens in deciding how they want to honor their loved one. Some families do balloon releases, create photobooks, plant a memorial tree or garden, or light candles for remembrance. Youth often have great ideas about how they would like to recognize this loss.
Get connected. Grief can feel lonely and isolating for adults and kids alike. Look into local resources for grief support. Many communities have support groups, counseling options, grief camps, and more. You can contact the LifeCenter Northwest Family Services team to help locate resources in your area, book recommendations, or just to have a listening ear. We can be reached at (877) 275-5269.
Additionally, we have bereavement books specifically tailored to helping teens and children through the grieving process-click here for a comprehensive list. If you are interested in receiving any of the books listed you may contact Sam Rennebohm at email@example.com, or (425) 201-6576.
Jen Gutzmer is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in grief and loss and has extensive experience working with children, teens, and their families.