22 Aug 2014
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Helping Children Navigate Personal Loss

Helping Children Navigate Personal Loss

Helping a child cope with loss and grief is a difficult undertaking for an adult, but also an almost inevitable task. According to Diane Ferber,  Director of the Collaborative Center for Learning and Development at Greenwich Education Group, “our children, unfortunately, are likely to experience loss during their childhood, whether it is a pet, neighbor, classmate, grandparent or other family member.”

Ferber explains it’s not easy to predict how children will react to death. “It can be difficult to know how to help our children cope, especially if their loved one is also our loved one, and we are working through our own grief.”

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, for primary grade children, adult reactions will play an especially important role in shaping a child’s perceptions of the situation. Drawing on the works of grief experts, Ferber offers practical advice about how to talk to children about loss, including using developmentally appropriate language, answering questions, sharing beliefs, letting children see our own grief and making choices about including them in specific activities.

Children Process Grief Differently

Ferber advises it’s important to understand that children grieve differently than adults. Young children have less experience in the feelings that accompany loss, and in processing their own strong emotions. As a result, a child will often grieve in spikes of coping and non-coping as they struggle to identify what they are feeling and learn how best to protect and express themselves when overwhelmed.

As this differs from an adult’s continuous grieving, Ferber warns that it can be misunderstood. A child’s on and off grieving pattern should not be taken as a signal that the child has quickly moved beyond the grief, or that he/she is manipulating the situation.  "Children grieve on and off as a means of self-protection,” she explains.

Ferber also suggests as children grow they may also re-experience grief as they move into new developmental stages, and as their understanding of death and awareness of the impact on their lives develop.  At each developmental milestone, the loss can resurface and express itself.

Simple, Honest, Open and Direct 

While a child’s ability to understand death is dependent on their age and developmental level, Ferber stresses to adults the importance of language, being a good listener, and communication. “It is best to use simple, honest words, including ‘died.’" Euphemisms such as ‘taken away,’ ‘lost,’ and ‘passed’ may be confusing to children, and can fuel anxiety of being abandoned or unsafe.

Adults need to bear in mind  that we cannot shelter our children from death, grief and trauma. Ferber explains, "adults often avoid direct wording and discussion in the belief that it will make the child upset." Instead, she recommends helping children deal with their feelings. In fact, research shows that children who have been allowed to openly grieve and discuss their feelings with a supportive adult are less likely to suffer long-term adverse effects. 

Adults should provide children with terms for their feelings (grief, sadness, fear, etc.), and answer concretely and lovingly – even when they ask us repeatedly, as they integrate the reality of what has happened. Finally, allowing our children to see us cry and grieve helps them learn how to express grief, and that it is acceptable to cry and show emotion. "Through our example, they can learn how we, and they, can comfort each other."


How should an adult answer this question when it is one with which they themselves may be struggling?  Experts suggest explaining that death is a normal part of the cycle of all living things, and to stress to children that it is not their fault and that no one is to blame. Children, especially the younger ones, are not thinking so much about the larger metaphysical questions, as much as trying to understand more concrete cause and effect. "It is okay to admit that we don't have all of the answers," advises Ferber.

Bringing in the role of religion and personal beliefs is a family decision.  Experts suggest that while previously introduced religious traditions can be helpful,  the introduction of a religion and its theology at this point may be confusing to the child.  

Attending A Service?

Rituals involving family members may bring comfort, allowing our children to be supported and say goodbye, and help them cope with the situation.  While attendance at the funeral, burial, and other events is a parental decision, experts suggest that children six years or older should be allowed if they want to.  However, it is important to explain in detail ahead of time what will happen and what they will see, hear, and do (open/closed casket, crying, talking, reminiscing, etc.) Let them ask questions and be frank and truthful in explaining.

Involving School

While death is disruptive and can put a child’s life into turmoil, schools can function as a stable framework for a grieving child by providing the routines, structure, and normalcy that can reassure a child that they have supports and continuity.

Ideally, parents should let the school/teachers know about the death as soon as possible.  School personnel can help by monitoring the child’s behavior and emotional condition (anger, withdrawal, regression, sadness are common) and offer guidance and understanding.  A school psychologist trained in grief and trauma can monitor the child to ensure they are processing the grief, and make referrals for additional support if necessary.

Signs Of More Complicated Grief

Many children experiencing loss will evidence changes in behavior and functioning. Ferber explains that a child’s expressions of grief may take the form of regression to the behavior of a younger self, clinginess, irritability, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, apathy, non-compliance, impulsivity, risk taking, somatic complaints, depression, distractibility, decline in school work and loss of interest in play.

Short-term behavioral changes are normal and parents can be accepting while gently encouraging the child to return to their previous level of functioning.  Patience is important, but parents must set and enforce limits as usual. They can help the child express feelings and concerns through drawing, play, and writing and by offering venting alternatives as a means to voice their feelings.

There are specific behaviors, Ferber emphasizes, that may need to be directly addressed by parents, school counselors, physicians and/or grief counselors. Parents should be alert to:

  • a child feeling guilty or responsible for a loved one’s death; reassure them that this is not true, not even a little.
  • a child’s fear that you (parent, caregiver, teacher) may die and no one will take care of them; reassure them that there will always be someone to take care of them.
  • an extended period of depression and/or a loss of interest in activities.
  • an extended period of hostility and/or isolation.
  • persistent panic, fear, and sleeplessness.
  • sharp and prolonged drop in school performance, attendance, and risky behavior in older children.

A Life Experience

Parents should understand that children are in fact experiencing life, not just preparing for it.  They can help their child gain the tools and insights that are necessary to deal with the losses that come with a full, connected life.  If either parent or child needs help with this transition, they should reach out to a counselor for professional support. For more information, contact the  Collaborative Group for Learning and Development at  Greenwich Education Group at 203-409-0069. 

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