The death of a parent or loved one can be just as hard on a child as it is on an adult; however, children process death and deal with grief very differently than adults. According to Frannie Gaeta, L.C.S.W., a Carilion Clinic bereavement specialist and head of Carilion's Soul Survivors family grief support program, the signs of grief in a child can vary by age.
Young children might regress and begin wetting the bed or have nightmares while older children may have trouble in school, have sleeping or eating issues or no longer find enjoyment from activities that they once loved. Gaeta adds that some children will often mask their grief completely and give parents the impression that they are doing fine.
“A parent will think that if the child is still getting up for school and eating dinner then he must be ok,” she explains. “They don't realize the child is actually struggling.”
You can help your child get through the emotional pain that grief can cause. According to Gaeta, communication and finding the right kind of support are the keys to helping your child process and manage grief in a healthy way.
1. Be Open and Honest
The first step is to be open and honest about the death. Have an age-appropriate conversation about what happened to the loved one who died. For young children, you might need to explain how a body stops working, but you might also need to explain that the person who died is not coming back. For older children, honesty is especially important even if the circumstances of death include murder or suicide.
“Eventually children will find out how that loved one died, and if you are not honest with them from the beginning they may feel that they can never trust you again,” says Gaeta.
2. Discuss Changing Family Roles
The death of a parent or sibling can change the family dynamic so there are bound to be questions about who will take on certain roles and how the roles of each family member will change. Concerns from your children can range from who will be the bread winner in the family to something simple like who will walk the dogs.
“Everyone in the family has a role to play and sometimes older kids will automatically try to put themselves in that role, so it is important for the family as a unit to talk about who is going to fill certain roles and responsibilities around the house,” explains Gaeta. “Have that conversation and reassure your child that now that dad is gone, mom is going to do this and let them know that things will eventually be ok.”
3. Be a Role Model
How you deal with grief will show your child how to grieve, and children often do as well as the parent is doing.
“If the parent is taking care of him or herself and doing as well as they can while dealing with grief, then so will the child,” says Gaeta. “If the parent is struggling, you will see that reflected in the child.”
Children learn from the actions of their parents; therefore, if the parent is not demonstrating a healthy way to grieve, the child may mirror them. Often times parents will seek support and education on how to help their child through his grief and are concerned that he is not showing emotions.
“I ask them if they cry in front of their child and if the answer is never, there's your answer,” says Gaeta.
4. Talk About It
Talking to your children and encouraging them to ask questions is essential in helping everyone deal with loss.
“If your child won't talk to you about it, but you have noticed changes in him or he seems depressed, it may be time to find a therapist or a support group,” says Gaeta.
5. Seek Professional Help
Family support throughout the grieving process is extremely important, but sometimes it is not enough. Gaeta recommends seeking a grief support group or turning to a therapist if your child has more individualized needs.
“Support groups can often seem less intimidating for children and it can be very therapeutic because they can talk to other kids who are going through the same thing and are having similar thoughts and feelings,” notes Gaeta. “They don't feel like they are alone in how they are feeling.”
As you and your family work through grief, just remember that with children and teens emotional and physical signs often indicate their feelings more than words. Keep an eye out for those subtle signs and changes just as much as the obvious ones.