How does it feel for a child to lose a loved one? How do children deal with death? How can we, as adults, minister to a grieving child? What can we do to help a child get through the holidays after a loss?
Those questions are often asked as we encounter children who are grieving. We need to understand that children have the same emotions as adults. Children are resilient but often unable to effectively communicate what they are feeling. When a child is asked, “How are you doing?” his answer is usually, “Okay” or “Fine.” More often than not, they do not have the communication skills necessary to express their grief. I believe that is why time and again children are ignored when a loved one is lost. People don’t know how to respond or help, so they do nothing. Sometimes the fear of not knowing what to say can keep us from reaching out to the grieving child.
The stages of grief are the same for adults and children alike. They can occur in any order and some stages can be recurring. People are uniquely different and no two people travel through the grieving process the same. Remember that grieving is a process, not an event. Grief work is difficult and complicated. We all grieve in different ways and there is no one correct way for people to move through the grieving process.
The following ten stages of grief are adapted from Granger Westberg’s book Good Grief.
- Shock and/or Denial: The child cannot believe it has happened. They feel numb. They walk around in a daze, kind of like a robot, not knowing what to feel because they are in shock.
- Emotional Release: This is when the shock wears off and the child begins to realize what has really happened. They cry and express other emotions. It is very normal to cry long and often in this stage of grief. This is not a good time to hold in emotions; they must release them.
- Depression: The child feels lonely and wants to be alone. They may cry a lot or be moody. People around them need to comfort and sympathize with them during this time.
- Psychosomatic Symptoms: The child may have physical symptoms (head aches, stomach aches), feel angry, intense loneliness, constantly thinking about the lost loved one—can’t get them out of their mind.
- Panic: The child starts to panic when they cannot focus or think about anything else but the loss. Panic is natural and normal after the loss of a loved one.
- Guilt: The child feels responsible for the loss, like it was their fault it happened. It is important for them to talk to another person about how they feel during this time. It’s not wise to keep feelings inside.
- Hostility: The child feels angry and frustrated. They may feel like they are mad at the world and mad at God. This is a normal reaction in the grieving process. This is a stage where the child needs support from their friends and family.
- Resistance: Overcoming grief takes time—several months or sometimes years to complete. The more severe the loss suffered, the longer the recovery period. The child tries to get back into life again, but it is too painful. Sometimes it is easier to grieve than to try to cope with new situations. Support from family and friends is important. They must talk about the things they are dealing with.
- Hope: The child now begins to feel hopeful that they can return to normal activities. They see light at the end of the tunnel and know that they are going to be okay.
- Recovery: The child has adjusted to the loss and is ready to get on with the rest of their life.
The key to healing is communication and allowing children to feel those unpleasant feelings. We cannot protect them from grief. If we do not allow them to feel the sadness (with or without tears) and various other emotions involved in grieving, we can set ourselves and the child up for problems later on. I have personally witnessed catastrophe within families that did not allow themselves to grieve. Repressed emotions and feelings will eventually erupt. It is like trying to hold a beach ball under the water. At some point, the ball will fly out of the water, because it cannot be held down any longer. God gave us emotions and feelings for a reason. When they are expressed, the wounded heart begins to heal. Children should be involved as much as possible in the visitation, funeral, and burial of a loved one. Although unpleasant, it is necessary for healing to begin. It is important for a child to learn that death is a part of life and this is the perfect teachable moment for that.
Deuteronomy 6: 7 “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
Teaching children is continuous no matter where we are or what we are doing; we are to instruct children in the ways of the Lord.
We should never lie or tell half-truths about the death or event. In order to help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses, children need to be told the truth. Give the child information at the level that he/she can understand. Allow the child to guide adults as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
The bereaved child may experience anxiety, vivid memories, sleep difficulty, sadness and longing, anger and acting out, guilt, or school problems, all of which are normal reactions to loss. If a child has had severe stress or trauma, adults need to carefully observe these children for signs of traumatic stress and seek professional help when necessary.
There is no time of the year when we’re more aware of the empty space our loved one has left behind than during the holiday season. Holidays can create feelings of dread and anxiety in those who are bereaved.
It is particularly tough for children during the holidays, especially if they had a close relationship with the person who passed away. Here are some practical ways to help a grieving child during the holiday season:
- Make an ornament for the Christmas tree with a picture of the person who has passed away. Let the child put that ornament on the tree and talk about how that person is missed but is remembered and honored by having a special place on the tree.
- Have the child write a letter or draw a picture for the loved one and put it in a sealable plastic bag. Visit the gravesite and allow the child to put the letter/picture by the grave.
- Let the child help bake a special holiday meal or dessert in memory of their loved one. Invite family and friends to join in. If the loved one had a favorite Christmas candy or a favorite Thanksgiving dessert, encourage the child to make those items and talk about how much the loved one enjoyed these favorite items.
- Allow the children to help make decisions about day-to-day living and holiday plans. The children may feel they have more control of the situation when they can help make decisions.
- Try to keep a routine because the child’s world may feel chaotic; they need structure (wake-up times, bed, meal, school, homework and television times). Christmas can be especially hard as they watch other families celebrate and as everyone’s schedules tend to be interrupted over the holidays.
- While sitting around the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table, go around the table and ask each person to share a memory they have concerning the loved one.
Children have an inherent need to feel safe and secure. Keeping our traditions during the holidays is vital. You may decide to keep old traditions as well as create some new ones. When reaching out to grieving children, we need to be open and approachable. Never force or coerce a child to talk, but create an atmosphere where they will feel comfortable to share if given the opportunity. Children can perceive if people genuinely love and care for them.
With the Holy Spirit’s direction, our role is to help guide children as they walk through their process of grief.