Grief, the intense set of feelings associated with death, is a family experience. Grief is complex; it encompasses a wide range of emotions that can come and go in waves. Be assured that there is no set way or length of time to grieve. In helping children cope with death, remember that every child is unique and will grieve at his own pace. While the sadness may not completely go away, you and your family can find strength and comfort in one another.
Encourage the expression of feelings
- Assure your child that everyone, including you, has feelings, and that there are no feelings too big–or too little–to talk about.
- In dealing with loss, it’s okay to let your child see you cry, or even to cry together. Explain why you are crying. Tell him that you are just feeling sad, that you are all right, and that it sometimes helps to let the feelings out in this way.
- It is important to recognize that your child might feel angry at or disappointed with her parent for dying, even if the service member is seen as a hero. Allow your child to express her feelings openly. Tell her: “I know you’re upset that dad died. Sometimes I feel like that too.”
- Children may experience a wide range of feelings–anger, sadness, hopelessness, disappointment, confusion, loneliness, guilt, worry–but they may not always have the words to identify these emotions. Help younger children find alternative ways of communicating–drawing pictures or acting out their feelings using puppets, for example. Encourage older children to explore their feelings by writing in a journal or playing music.
- Pent-up feelings of anger or frustration can lead to behavior that is destructive or harmful. Provide your child with safe and constructive outlets for these intense emotions. Encourage him to run, dance around, or pound on playdough. Listening to soothing music and taking deep breaths can also help children feel more calm and relaxed.
Be patient and observant
- If your child isn’t ready to talk right away, be patient. Let her know that you will be there to listen when she is ready.
- For many young children, grief is temporarily interrupted by a normal feelings state, only to be replaced again by grief a few hours, days, or years later. Teachers or other adults may tell you that children “should be over” their grief, but grief is an ongoing process.
- Observing your children’s behavior may help you understand their needs. Sometimes children’s reactions when coping with the death and absence of a parent can be especially severe. Some common feelings or behaviors might persist, grow in intensity, or occur more frequently, signaling a need for extra attention. For instance, children may have nightmares or scary thoughts, experience trouble sleeping, become excessively irritable, develop new fears, or exhibit regressive behavior. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, seek professional help right away.
Remember: You are still a family
Next: Moving Forward
- Take care of yourself so you can better take care of your children. Try to maintain healthy routines. Engage in activities that you enjoy and that help you feel calm.
- Allow your children to be children. This applies especially to older children, who may have new responsibilities but still need opportunities for fun and play.
- Offer hopeful ways of thinking about the future: “We’re going to be fine. We’re still a family, and we will heal.”
- Find additional strategies about helping children cope with death using the printable Talk, Listen, Connect, Caring Cards.