One of the most heartbreaking things for any parent, guardian or loved one of a young child going through a difficult time is that it’s impossible to protect them from the pain of loss. However, you can equip them with the coping tools to deal with grief and learn what you can do to help them through this process. Children are naturally curious and inquisitive and even if they don’t totally understand death, they are very much aware of it.
Processing the grief that comes with death can feel confusing for small children and they can experience an array of emotions. Expect little ones to move between feelings of frustration, anger, sadness and even happiness or excitement.
Grief is complicated at any age but especially for small children who may be experiencing it for the first time, so knowing different ways to help can be important.
Explain the situation
Children need facts, this means you don’t need to use mild alternatives but bear in mind that they also don’t need harsh realities and lengthy explanations. It’s a delicate balance due to the fact that younger children can’t process long accounts of what the situation is – so be honest but brief.
Children a little older may need the name of an illness to better understand the situation but a succinct explanation such as “his heart stopped working which meant he couldn’t live any longer” is more appropriate for younger children.
All children grieve in different ways, so be patient. Some children may regress and you may notice extreme mood changes. As mentioned, they can even display feelings of happiness or excitement so try not to mistake them playing for no longer being upset – playing can even help them avoid becoming overwhelmed. It’s common for children to be depressed or anxious and they can even feel guilty or angry.
Make it clear that it’s perfectly normal to feel these things with what they’re going through and help explore ways to express it. For example, drawing can be a great help.
Encourage them to talk
Once the child has had the loss explained to them they will need some encouragement to talk about it. Depending on the situation, this may be painful for you, but speaking openly is the best course of action and is healthy for all involved.
A great way for them to feel comfortable about opening up is for you to talk about how you are feeling about it – this shows them it’s okay to be honest about their feelings. Children like to act like the grown-ups around them and so opening up will help them open up to you in return, but bear in mind that bottling it up will make them feel they have to as well.
Encouraging them to be creative can help children to say goodbye. If the death is sudden, or they didn’t get to say goodbye in person, finding other ways of helping them to do so can help small children process grief. As previously mentioned, drawing their feelings can be helpful and creating a memory book can also be a great coping mechanism.
Make sure you are also receiving support
If you are a parent or guardian of a young child attempting to cope with grief, the chances are you are also grieving. If this is the case you must make sure you are receiving appropriate support. In order to offer what the child requires, you need to care for your own mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
If they have stated they don’t want to go to the funeral then don’t force it, but equally, if they have expressed that they want to go make it clear what to expect and what they’ll see. You will need to use age-appropriate judgement with this as a funeral is clearly an emotionally intense experience.
Routine can help
If your child has made it clear to you that they’d like to return to school, or whatever their ‘normal’ routine was in the first place then allow that to go ahead. Work with them and the way they feel. A normal routine can really help them process grief – so wherever possible also continue with regular mealtimes and bedtime.
Whether you need help arranging a funeral, or advice on grief, loss and bereavement the site Beyond can help with expert information you can trust. Child Bereavement UK is also a great point of reference – they offer advice via videos, articles and information sheets and you can get in touch with them via phone and email.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach as all children are different, but the more you know, the easier it will become to find ways of helping.