Articles by Patricia Velkoff, PhD

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Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One

When children are faced with the death of a loved one, the initial instinct of most of us is to shield them from the experience.  Most caring adults want to protect children from strong and often conflicted emotions, from the pain and grief.  As adults, we are challenged enough as we cope with death.  How can we expect children, with their more limited coping skills, to manage such enormous feelings?  Why would we ask them to cope with such a thing if there were any way to protect them?

There are some circumstances in which children should be protected from knowing the facts.  Some sexual information, some kinds of violence, and some forms of depravity are so over-the-top (even for some adults) that they overwhelm young children and derail them from the normal course of development.  During particularly stressful times, some children are much less able to manage loss or death than they would be at another time.  A childís development, age, maturity, and the nature of the information must all be considered in deciding what to tell a child. 

Most deaths, however, cannot be categorized as such excessive events that we should keep them from children, even from preschoolers.  Throughout their lives, although we wish it were not so, children will need to deal with disappointment, sadness, grief, loss, and a variety of circumstances that they do not choose but cannot change.  How adults handle death with children can serve as a guide to them for handling future situations of loss, of grief, and of strong emotions of all kinds.  It can help them learn to cope with situations they would like to control but cannot.  The deep emotions we feel when someone dies are painful.  But they are a real part of life.  With our help, children can learn to cope so that they are stronger for the experience. 

Adults can help children to come to terms with the loss of a loved one in several ways. 

Straightforward and honest explanations of what has happened are easier for children to understand than misinformation, suggested information, or inadequate information.  Young children, in particular, tend to take responsibility for deaths, since they are developing a growing sense of independence and power in their own lives.  Accurate information can provide an important limit to any excess feelings of responsibility these children may feel.   

When we do not provide enough facts about a death, we solve one problem (dealing with the details) while creating another (trust in others and in oneself).  Children usually know when facts are being withheld, even when they are unable to guess at what those facts are.  This can lead to unarticulated and unanswered questions.  What is being withheld?  Why?  What is so terrible that I cannot be included?  Could I handle it, or not?  How could I know?  How do they know that I cannot?  Am I actually too incompetent or fragile to cope, or merely viewed as fragile?  If the situation is so terrible, how are the adults coping Ė or are they?  By providing enough information to make the death understandable, we can help children have faith in themselves and in us.  By remaining available for questions, discussions, and comfort, we let children see that complex emotions can be faced, especially if they are faced with trusted family and friends.    

Learning that normal grief takes many forms helps children to see their own reactions as understandable, and as signs of their deep bond with the person they have lost.  Children have been known to respond to the death of a loved one with:

It is often helpful to let children know, if such symptoms or fears arise, that they are normal and experienced by many people.  Sympathy should be extended without dwelling too much on the symptoms, which will typically pass. 

Rites, rituals, and ceremonies help people in all cultures to work through complex and painful feelings following a death.  Rituals are often structured to provide mutual support as well as emotional and conceptual processing of the meaning of the loss.  When a community of individuals has known the person who died, rituals can help each person in the group to both experience and contain their painful feelings about the loss.  When a community of children is involved, the ritual can either be defined by an adult or cooperatively with the children.  Participation should be voluntary but encouraged.  Children should neither be excluded from the ritual, nor forced to participate, nor made to feel guilty if they do not wish to be included. 

Some ritual ideas that have worked with children and adults include:

A buddy telephone tree can give coworkers or children specific names of people to call when they wish to talk.  While some people have a need to discuss the death or their own feelings, others prefer to process their feelings in silence or alone.  Regardless of their personal preferences, most people appreciate friends checking in at some time or another about how they are managing. 

Resumption of familiar routines and responsibilities can help with the grieving process.  This allows for respite from grief and helps to reaffirm the activities that we can do despite the death that we could not prevent. 

Reading together can provide a way of processing feelings of grief and sadness following a death.  Childrenís librarians can be excellent resources for locating age-appropriate books on death for children of different ages.  In addition to the many poems that deal with death, a number of books deal eloquently with the topic and can be read by older children or by adults. 

As adults, many of us can recall a significant loss or a death that occurred in our own childhood.  It is a useful exercise to try to recall what worked and what did not work in how the experience was handled.  We might also try to imagine how we would have liked the loss and grieving to have been handled when we were young.  This can ground us and provide a compassionate framework for working with the children in our lives who are coping with death. 

Grieving is an uneven process, with starts and stops, forgetting and remembering, sweet nostalgia and wrenching pain.  It is not uncommon for grief to re-emerge on the one-year anniversary of a personís death.  It is also not uncommon for new problems to develop for children 18 to 24 months after the death.  Ideas that help in the immediate aftermath of a death or loss can be called upon at a later time when grief returns. 

Clear and honest discussions of death, loss, and grief usually work better for children than silence or attempts to protect them from the facts.  Children need our help to put a frame around such profound experiences.  They also need to learn from adults how to cope with loss, helplessness, and other feelings that are too large to manage quickly or easily.  While adults may feel ill prepared to handle our own sadness at these times, we still have much to offer the children in our lives when they are struggling with the same feelings.