How to help children cope with grief?

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The death of a loved one is one of the most traumatic events a child can go through. At this point, they are dealing with deep feelings of helplessness, not knowing what is going on, losing the world they knew, and finding it difficult to understand and deal with the feelings of loss. Childhood grief is a process of reconstruction in the face of death; it is an emotional challenge that the child must face. Coping with a loss is not something we are naturally taught.

Many people believe that death “is not a child’s issue,” and in order to spare them emotionally, they try to keep them from understanding the circumstances. It is, without a doubt, not the best way. It could be a pet or a close relative; the advice is not to hide it from them. 

How do you break the news to a child that they have lost someone?

In this complex situation, it is best to be direct rather than makeup stories to protect the child.  Avoid using vague terms like “slept forever,” “has taken a long trip,” or “rested” to try to soften them, as it will only confuse their understanding. Children have a tendency to take everything literally and may expect to see their loved ones again at some point in the future. 

It is also worth noting that the famous expressions “so and so became a little star” should be avoided because, according to psychology, children up to the age of ten have their psyche under construction, failing to capture certain concepts of subjectivity. In other words, they think in concrete terms and can form their personalities around unrealistic concepts.

Age is an important factor…

The child’s age is the first consideration, as their life experience and personality are factors that will directly influence their attitude toward the loss.  Furthermore, the primary focus of the problem is that a child, in general, lacks the dimension of what death itself is.

Between the ages of five and ten:

At this age, it is more common for the child to confront the reality of death, even if he or she does not believe that they or their loved ones are at risk of experiencing it.  Essentially, the child is aware of the existence of death but believes that it will only occur to strangers. 

However, dealing with loss is difficult at any age, and the entire family environment suffers as a result.  As a consequence, it is critical that you not only express your pain but also assist the child in expressing their feelings without hiding or repressing them.

Children’s Common Reactions to Loss 

It is critical to be understanding and patient during this time, as the child’s behaviour is likely to change. Sadness is a normal stage that varies in intensity depending on the child’s relationship with the deceased. The closer the child is, the more likely they are to express their feelings abruptly, with irritability, aggression, and violence toward those close to them, in addition to having frequent nightmares and other symptoms. 

It is also common for children to experience a regression or setback in the evolutionary process, beginning to act as they did in previously surpassed stages of development in order to draw attention to themselves. However, these symptoms must be viewed as transient, as they are symptoms of difficulty coping with grief.

The following indicators may appear in the child’s life: 

  • Excessive fear of the dark, resulting in panic and dread; 
  • Difficulties being alone; 
  • Affected social interaction – the child may refuse to play or interact with other people, isolating themselves from the world;
  • Weakened academic performance.

Furthermore, the child may exhibit “pathological grief,” which is when they lose interest in things that used to interest them, lose their appetite, expresses desires to leave with the deceased, becomes irritated when speaking about the one who lost, or talk about it excessively.

Psychological Assistance 

It is necessary for children to go through the grief process. They must be encouraged to express their emotions. Because the child lacks the ability to name their feelings, they express themselves through play, using symbolisation to express their fantasies, anxieties, and feelings – this is why, in the therapeutic process, toys and drawings are used. 

Loss of a significant other necessitates readaptation, particularly in environments that evoke memories of the other person, in order to deal with emotional and affective issues.

With the psychologist’s assistance, supports that favour internal resources are promoted, allowing the child to mourn while also feeling welcomed, understood, and safe in a time of helplessness and uncertainty. Death is a difficult event to explain, but if the child asks, answer honestly and in accordance with your beliefs. If the child is very active, encourage them to play and walk around outside during the day, but if the child has a more reserved personality, spend quality time alone with them. Try to stick to your normal routine around the house, keeping in mind that new good memories will form from now on. 

This attitude will assist the child in accepting and overcoming the loss of a loved one in a realistic manner (without creating fantastic concepts about life and death). Always be aware of the child’s behaviour and respect their way of dealing with grief, never forcing them to do anything they don’t want to do.

Always keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to events. Even for adults, death is a sensitive subject; can you imagine how sensitive it is for children? As a result, don’t be too hard on yourself; instead, be honest and ready to support the kids around you by demonstrating empathy, understanding, love, and kindness without disrupting the household structure, as they will need their routine more than ever.

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