The holiday season can be a time of joy, excitement, and anticipation as the weather turns cold and preparations begin for various celebrations. Our thoughts turn to our families, friends, faith, and even to our favorite holiday treats. It seems as if everywhere we go during this time of year there is a constant reminder of the season. While for many people this is a welcomed event, full of good memories and hopeful wishes for the coming year, for others it can be a painful reminder of those who will not be gathered to share in the holiday celebration.
Whether this is the first time a loved one is no longer with us, or the twentieth, grief can be a complex and ever-changing experience. This sentiment is especially true for children, who tend to experience grief very differently than the adults in their lives.
Child Development and the Grieving Process.
Infancy. Children’s’ grief experiences cover a large range of developmental abilities. As early as infancy, babies can sense a loss in their lives, but may not be able to express grief through speech or working memories. In these situations, infants and toddlers can experience the death and show distress by having difficulty sleeping, clinginess, and/or temper tantrums. Helping a child so young with a loss can include repeated reassurance that they are safe, while also providing a consistent, predictable daily routine.
Preschool age. As children grow into their preschool years, death is seen as temporary or reversible. The preschool child may ask repeated questions to really grasp what has happened to their loved one. They may regress in areas where they had no trouble previously, such as with toilet training or returning to a security blanket. During this time, it is best to give the preschool child simple, honest explanations of death; and prepare yourself for frequent repetition of questions and comments. Also, allow for some regression as the child is dealing with the loss.
Late childhood. In the later childhood years, some children may still see death as reversible or temporary. Other children might view death as a punishment for something they did or did not do. The child may show overt signs of grief, such as sadness or anger, develop physical complaints, or even start to exhibit behavioral problems as a response to the loss. At this age, one should continue to give honest explanations of death while avoiding euphemisms such as the person is “asleep” or “gone”. Assure the child that it is okay to grieve and give the child opportunities to express a range of feelings.
Adolescents. As the teenage years approach, death is seen as irreversible, and can be truly conceptualized. A teenager may respond to the death with depression, denial, or repression. Due to their developmental needs, teenagers may seek out the comfort of peers before family. It may be hard for family members to understand why the teenager is withdrawing from the family, especially if the death involved a family member. Give the teenager some space and encourage open dialogue. Listen to what your teenager expresses to you about the loss.
Tips for Helping a Child Understand and Process Death
While keeping the child’s developmental needs in mind, some additional suggestions for helping a child with grief include:
- Create a safe place to talk about the loss. Although repeated questions can be difficult to hear, particularly in a situation in which the adult in the child’s life is also grieving, try to create an environment that encourages open discussion and expression of feelings. If the child is constantly consumed with the topic, the safe adult could suggest a special time and place where they could discuss the death.
- Uphold or postpone traditions. Instead of avoiding traditions that may remind you of the person who died, the child may want to embrace them. During the holiday season, this can be especially true. Talk with the child and see if they would like to build a gingerbread house like they used to do with grandma or go look at the lights like they would do with their uncle. Be prepared for the child to respond in different ways. For example, a child may not want to the first year after the death, but may want to uphold the holiday traditions the next year.
- Embrace their feelings. Death brings complicated feelings for children to delve into, including anger, sadness, and confusion. These may be feelings that the child has never experienced before in such great intensity. Allow the child to feel the feelings and do not feel as if you have to ‘fix’ it for them. Sometimes, just being a listening ear can help the child work through these complicated emotions.
About Complex Grief
Unexpected death, such as the loss of a sibling or a parent, can be complex and difficult to handle. However, not all losses result from the death of a loved one. Experiences such as divorce, foster care, or even a move can cause a child to experience signs of loss. Loss and death can be complex and the adults in the child’s life may have difficulty in responding to their child’s grief. If your child is experiencing more complex grief, you may need to seek out the additional help of a therapist. Therapists, including myself, work with both children and caregivers in addressing grief and loss. For more information, or to set up an appointment to talk with me, please contact me at your convenience.
Licensed Marital and Family Therapist
Registered Play Therapist