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Children should be allowed to grieve and grow through their grief. Adults have a responsibility for their care, this may include parents, but also the wider family, teachers, youth group leaders, religious ministers and so on.
Many studies have shown that after the death or departure of a parent that children tend to suffer from loss of self esteem, as can adults who lose a spouse. The child’s sense of personal worth may be damaged and needs to be balanced by other significant adults.
When a child dies in the family, the remaining brothers and sisters may feel neglected, as the emotions are focussed on the child who has died. A grieving parent may find it hard to meet the needs of their other children due to their own grief. They may need support themselves to be able to do so.
It is important to listen to children and teenagers who are grieving, so they can tell us what their needs are.
- 1. They may need adults who they can turn to and trust.
- 2. They should be able to express their feelings without judgment or criticism. They may already feel vulnerable, so disapproval or indifference will not help.
- 3. Tears should be allowed and encouraged. It is not helpful for adults to say things such as “come on, be brave, you’re the man/woman of the house now.”
- 4. Accept that they may not cry easily.
- 5. Offer them a secure setting and safe ways to let their anger and feelings be expressed.
- 6. It can sometimes be helpful for children to talk to adults outside the family. For example, teachers. They may not feel able to talk about a lost parent, for example, to the other parent, when they can see that the parent is upset.
- 7. Encourage the child to spend time with things that belonged to the dead person eg. Books, photos, and so on. If the person liked a particular piece of music, encourage the child to listen to it, rather than avoiding it. Encourage them to choose a memento to keep to remind them. These will help them to remember the person who has died and help them feel close to them.
- 8. Pets can be important to children when they are grieving, something to love and cuddle and take for walks. Soft toys can also be comforting. Touch is important and the child may like to cuddle the animal or toy when an adult or sibling is not around.
- 9. If possible, a child may contact a child bereavement group. This can help them see that they are not the only one who is grieving. Unfortunately, there are not always suitable groups around.
- 10. A child may like to draw a picture about how they are feeling, especially if they are too young to write about their thoughts and feelings yet. Other ideas are to get the child to tie their picture or words to a balloon and send it into the sky to say good bye to the person who has died. They may want to plant a tree or flower in the garden to help them remember. They may like to start a scrap book or memory box of things that remind them of the person who has died.
- 11. Little rituals in families can change when one of a family dies. Children may find this difficult.
- 12. It can be important to remember “special days”, such as the birthday of the dead person, or mother’s day or father’s day. Other adults may encourage the child to remember the person, for example, plant a new flower in the garden, put flowers on the grave, or so on.
- 13. As the child grows, they may need to look at the death of the person again.
How we experience death as a six year old will be very different to a 15 year old. A 15 year old girl may suddenly strongly feel the loss of her mother, for example, when she is developing and starting relationships. She may wish her mother was there for support and advice. This is not unresolved grief, it is a simply a reassessment of something that has occurred and that the child may need to come to terms with as they grow and develop. Therefore, it helps for children and teenagers to –
- Be told what has happened simply and honestly.
- Be reassured they are still loved and cared for.
- Be allowed to say well.
- Participate in simple rituals.
- Understand that however they feel – it is alright to feel it.
- Express emotions
- Be allowed to enjoy themselves
- Be encouraged to look forward to a time when their grief will get less, but that doesn’t mean that they will forget the person.