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Helping children cope with grief

The last few months of this pandemic have been exceedingly difficult. So many families have been devastated by loss as COVID-19 wreaked havoc in our communities. Unprecedented numbers of children have been forced to face loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, family friends, and sadly, even their own parents. Because children process grief so differently from adults, those left to care for them can feel a little lost when it comes to helping them cope, especially if they are trying to process their own grief. There are some important points to remember when helping children navigate through their grief following the loss of a loved one.

Children process and display complex emotion differently than adults. How kids cope with the loss depends on factors like their age, how close they felt to the person who died, and the support they receive. Grief in children is tricky because younger children may not understand the concept of death and its permanence. A child may believe that death is temporary, particularly because so many cartoons show a character being mortally wounded, then coming back to life. Consequently, younger children often miss a loved one in small spurts and may be sad for a few minutes every now and again. But because they have trouble understanding that death is permanent, they don’t fully grasp what the loss will really mean to their life.

Just like understanding of death varies by age, so do the signs of grief. When an adult grieves, it seems to be ever-present, even in moments of happiness. Children, however, often seem fine one moment, only to become very upset the next, because their brains can’t seem to cope with the sadness for long periods of time. Children may be extra clingy after a loss. They may cry about having to go to school or they may ask for help for tasks they previously mastered just to receive attention. Children may show evidence of developmental regression like bedwetting or reverting to baby talk. Older children may have difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, or start falling behind academically. Some become very anxious and preoccupied with thoughts of their own mortality or other loved ones dying. Perhaps the most surprising reaction is anger toward the person who has died. This reaction is rooted in feelings of betrayal and abandonment by their departed loved one.

One of the most important things a caretaker can do in helping a child to cope with their grief is to be honest. Using euphemisms, such as “we lost him” or “she’s sleeping now” can confuse and scare a little one. It’s important for children to understand that the person isn’t just sleeping or lost, but rather their body stopped working and they are not coming back. Of course, gruesome details aren’t necessary, but caretakers should make a point to tell the truth.

Another important thing is to acknowledge the loss. Many caretakers make the mistake of pretending the loss didn’t happen or try to avoid talking about the person who has died. This is a mistake. It’s up to the caretaker to decide if it’s appropriate for the child to attend the funeral, but if the child is afraid to go, they shouldn’t be forced to do so. The loss can be acknowledged in other ways. They can write a letter to their loved one, hold their own private celebration of life, light a candle, or create a scrapbook at home.

It’s crucial that caretakers exercise patience. A child’s grief cycles in and out, and to an adult, it can feel like they’re dwelling on the loss after everyone thought they had moved on. Caretakers should consistently respond with comfort and truth every time the child returns to a moment of grief. Even adults have their grief reawakened on birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. The same should be anticipated for children and they should be given the space and patience needed to work their way through these reawakened emotions.

Other caregivers, particularly teachers, should be engaged. They should be kept informed about what’s going on with the family and provided with information about the death, who to turn to if they’re seeing signs of distress, and an appropriate way to support the child if they’re having an emotional moment. By involving teachers, they can help with making the environment away from home a comfortable and supportive one for the grieving child.

Caregivers should also make it a point to take care of themselves. In many of these COVID-related deaths, the caretakers are, themselves, grieving the loss of a spouse, sibling, parent, or friend. Children will observe their caretaker to see how to deal with their own feelings. It’s important to make sure that those feelings are being processed in a healthy way. Feelings should be spoken about openly, but in a way that doesn’t burden the child with too many adult issues. It may be helpful for the caretaker to speak with a grief counselor or to attend a grief support group. A caretaker who is overwhelmed with grief is in no real position to help a child cope with their own feelings in a healthy way.

Be prepared for the long haul. Many signs of grief aren’t immediately apparent following a loss, especially if a child is young. That doesn’t mean there won’t be signs of grief years later. Four year olds who lose their father won’t understand the finality of death at the time. But when they’re 10 and there’s a father-daughter dance or a father-son fishing trip, they may begin to show signs of grief as the reality of what they lost really becomes clear. Similarly, seven year olds may seem to resolve their grief rather quickly after they lose a grandparent, but during their teenage years, they may show signs of grief as they begin to understand the things they missed out on by not having their grandparent in their life, or they may regret not spending more time with them when they were alive.

There’s no timeline when it comes to grief, no matter how young or old a person is. As a result, it’s not productive to suggest that it’s time for a child (or anyone for that matter) to “get over it”.

The grief may last a lifetime, but with support, grief can turn into healing for the whole family. Remember, your pediatrician is a valuable resource for helping you raise happy and healthy kids. If you have questions or concerns about how to help a child you love cope with loss, don’t hesitate to reach out for advice.

• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in Nassau, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.

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