It is an unarguably difficult time in a child’s life when they lose someone they care about, to death. Loss and bereavement are delicate topics which must be broached with the utmost caution in order to ensure that the child grows up with a healthy understanding of the process of life and death.
The first step to take in teaching children the healthy response to loss is understanding the extent of their emotions with regard to the loss. Children and teenagers process loss differently, although certain behaviours are common among both. This includes acting younger than their age for a period of time, in an act of regression that may be an unconscious response to find comfort in an earlier time of their lives. In addition to this, both children and teenagers will want to accompany adults where they go after a loss occurs, looking for physical comfort and proximity. This stems from a fear of abandonment, where separation anxiety develops, and the child looks for emotional support during a difficult time.
The five stages of grief that are widely known to be experienced by all individuals in the face of loss can be applied to how children process loss too. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are all stages that the child or teenager has to go through in order to adapt to the new circumstances of their life and move on. This, however, does not ensure that children will experience the stages in this order, or with consistent intensity. They must be allowed to wallow in their grief or be as expressive as they wish to be and attaching labels to their bereavement process will only curb this.
In addition to regression and separation anxiety, children may also appear unaffected by the loss or act as if it hadn’t occurred. While this may be alarming or distressing to the adults around them, apathy is a common way to grieve a loss. This coping mechanism is especially evident in teenagers who would struggle to express how they feel and often opt to withdraw from the activities of everyday life. Withdrawal can manifest in the form of disinterest in daily activities that used to be enjoyable, or choosing to stay at home instead of going out. To an extent, this is completely expected behaviour but children should be monitored to ensure that they are not developing symptoms of anxiety or depression, in which case it would be best to contact a professional.
The process of healing is hard, and may seem impossible at the worst of times. One of the most obstructive feelings to moving on from the loss is the feeling of guilt that may encompass recently bereaved children and teenagers. Due to the fact that young people tend to think about the world in relation to their own existence (this being more the case in younger children than teenagers), they may tend to blame themselves and hold themselves accountable in some way for the loss, even if they were not related to it. It is vital in these cases that children are reassured that they had no part to play in the death of their loved one, and that they are not to blame at all. Since this is not something they will accept readily, parents and caregivers must emphasise this fact whenever possible.
Apart from this, it may also be beneficial to teach children other healthy coping mechanisms which would direct their energy elsewhere and help the healing process. One of the things they could do would be to write a letter or a poem to their loved one, in a form of conversation that helps them identify and deal with how they feel about the death. They could also maintain a diary or journal in which they write to the person they lost. Other creative things they can do include making a memory box to store the things that remind them of their loved one and making a scrapbook of photos that showcase their best memories together. The key aspect in these is to emphasise the remembrance of the person who died in a positive light. It is a process of learning to cherish the great memories shared and an attempt to move away from the painful aspect of it, to something that doesn’t cause hurt every time the child thinks about their loved one.
Children must also be encouraged (but not coerced) to share how they feel after the loss. They could be shown, may be through parents setting an example, that grief is best handled when shared with other people who are also going through it. They must be made aware that sharing their experience and breaking down in the process should not be a source of shame. On the topic of shame, they should also be made aware that there is no shame if they find themselves laughing one day and stop because it feels wrong. Healing involves learning to laugh again, and this is an important message to get across.
While it may seem as if the bereavement period will stretch forever and that nothing will ever be as it was before it is vital to reassure children that it will pass, and it’s the parents’ and caregivers’ responsibility to emphasise that the loss will be overcome together.
The organisations listed below are dedicated to providing support and wellbeing resources to children, teenagers and parents going through the grieving process:
https://www.hopeagain.org.uk/ - Hope Again is an organisation that exists specially to help young people aged 11-18 deal with life after loss. They can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 0808 808 1677 for free.
https://www.griefencounter.org.uk/ - Grief Encounter is dedicated to helping children and young people struggling with the loss of a loved one. They can be contacted through online chat, email (email@example.com), or telephone (0808 802 0111).
https://www.winstonswish.org/ - Winston’s Wish deals especially with helping young people after the loss of a parent or sibling. They can be contacted through online chat, their Freephone helpline (08088 020 021) or their ASK email service, accessible through the Winston’s Wish official website.