Helping Children Cope with Loss

The death of a loved one is always difficult. In cases where the death results from a disaster, it can be even more troubling given the suddenness and violent nature of the event. For children, the loss of a parent, sibling, relative or friend can affect their sense of security. Helping children cope with their loss will be crucial in enabling them to resume their lives more fully at home and school.

Responses to Loss

Children deal with death in many different ways, and not necessarily in the same manner as adults. Here are some common ways children might respond to a death:

  • Sadness
  • Denial, shock and confusion
  • Anger and irritability
  • Inability to sleep
  • Nightmares
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fear of being alone
  • Physical complaints such as stomachaches and headaches
  • Loss of concentration
  • Guilt over failure to prevent the loss
  • Depression or a loss of interest in daily activities and events
  • Acting much younger for an extended period or reverting to earlier behaviors (e.g., bedwetting, baby talk or thumb-sucking)
  • Boisterous play
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school
  • Excessively imitating or asking questions about the deceased or making repeated statements of wanting to join the deceased
  • Inventing games about dying
  • Profound emotional reactions (e.g., anxiety attacks, chronic fatigue or thoughts of suicide)

Tips for Helping Children and Adolescents Grieve

Children will express their grief in a variety of ways and may appear to be unaffected by the death. Pre-schoolers have difficulty understanding that death is not temporary; children between the ages of five and nine begin to experience grief more like adults.

Don’t push children to talk about their feelings. Children, like adults, need time to grieve and be upset. Let them know you are ready to listen, and provide reassurance and validation of their feelings when they express them.

Here are some issues to consider when helping a child overcome loss:

  • Children are concrete in their thinking. To lessen confusion, avoid expressions such as passed on or went to sleep. Answer their questions about death simply and honestly. Only offer details that they can absorb. Don’t overload them with information.
  • Children are physical in their grief. Watch their bodies, and understand and support their play and actions as their language of grief. Offer reassurance.
  • Children can be fearful about death and the future. Give them a chance to talk about their fears and validate their feelings. Share happy memories about the person who died. Offer a simple expression of sorrow and take time to listen.
  • Children need choices. Whenever possible, offer choices in what they do or don’t do to memorialize the deceased and ways to express their feelings about the death. Help the child plant a tree or dedicate a place in memory of the person who died.
  • Children grieve as part of a family. Children grieve the person and the changed behavior and environment of family and friends. Keep regular routines as much as possible.
  • Children are repetitive in their grief. Respond patiently to their uncertainty and concerns. It can take a long time to recover from a loss. Expect their grief to revisit in cycles throughout their childhood or adolescence. A strong reminder, such as the anniversary of a death, may reawaken grief. Make yourself available to talk.

Living with Grief

Coping with death is vital to your mental health. It is only natural to experience grief when a loved one dies. The best thing you can do is allow yourself to grieve. There are many ways to cope effectively with your pain.

  • Seek out caring people. Find relatives and friends who can understand your feelings of loss. Join support groups with others who are experiencing similar losses.
  • Express your feelings. Tell others how you are feeling; it will help you to work through the grieving process.
  • Take care of your health. Maintain regular contact with your family physician and be sure to eat well and get plenty of rest. Be aware of the danger of developing a dependence on medication or alcohol to deal with your grief.
  • Accept that life is for the living. It takes effort to begin to live again in the present and not dwell on the past.
  • Postpone major life changes. Try to hold off on making any major changes, such as moving, remarrying, changing jobs or having another child. You should give yourself time to adjust to your loss.
  • Be patient. It can take months or even years to absorb a major loss and accept your changed life.
  • Seek outside help when necessary. If your grief seems like it is too much to bear, seek professional assistance to help work through your grief. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek help.

Helping Others Grieve
If someone you care about has lost a loved one, you can help them through the grieving process:

  • Share the sorrow. Allow them (even encourage them) to talk about their feelings of loss and share memories of the deceased.
  • Don’t offer false comfort. It doesn’t help the grieving person when you say “it was for the best” or “you’ll get over it in time.” Instead, offer a simple expression of sorrow and take time to listen.
  • Offer practical help. Baby-sitting, cooking and running errands are all ways to help someone who is in the midst of grieving.
  • Be patient. Remember that it can take a long time to recover from a major loss. Make yourself available to talk.
  • Encourage professional help when necessary. Don’t hesitate to recommend professional help when you feel someone is experiencing too much pain to cope alone.

It’s Complicated

Sadness over a loss is normal, and everyone grieves differently.
But some people experience an especially intense kind of mourning.

By: Carlin Flora

Grief is often characterized as an emotional roller coaster: On some days, those who have lost a loved one feel incredibly sad and full of pain, while on other days they feel a lightness, or even a strange euphoria that comes from appreciating the person who has passed and reflecting on their own growth in the wake of the loss.

But some people feel consistently upset and preoccupied with the person who has passed away, to the point where their relationships and work suffer for months on end. Such a reaction is known as “complicated grief.”

The notion of a particularly sharp and prolonged kind of grief has been floating around for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of bereavement researchers studied it systematically and pinned down its symptoms. They found that “complicated grief” occurs in about 10-20 percent of those who have lost a loved one. The symptoms, says Mary-Frances O’Connor, an assistant professor in psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s medical center, are unique in their intensity. “They include an extreme yearning for the deceased, loneliness, even searching for the deceased in a crowd, and intrusive thoughts about the deceased.”

Complicated grievers may feel that life has lost its meaning. “They will often say, ‘I feel like part of myself died with the person,'” O’Connor says. People who were emotionally dependent on the person who passed away particularly at risk of developing complicated grief.

O’Connor conducted a fascinating study in which she scanned the brains of women who had all lost a family member to breast cancer. When reminded of their deceased loved ones, women with “uncomplicated” grief showed activation in their brain’s emotional and memory centers. But the primary area that was activated in the brains of women with complicated grief was the nucleus accumbens—the reward center.

“When we are around our loved ones, it is normal for the reward system to be activated,” says O’Connor. “So it makes sense that those suffering from complicated grief still expect to be rewarded with contact from their loves ones, on some level.” It’s as if the complicated grievers hadn’t quite processed the fact that their mothers or sisters would no longer be in their lives. “They aren’t in denial, in that they are fully aware that the person is deceased, and yet on a subconscious level, they haven’t integrated that information. At some point the two ‘realities’ butt up against each other—and this may cause them to suffer.”

Studies on treating complicated grief show that it isn’t alleviated with depression treatments such as antidepressants, O’Connor says. “That kind of treatment doesn’t hit on the patients’ yearnings. What is most effective is talk therapy and exposure therapy that helps the person incorporate the death on a deep level. Also, it’s helpful to have the patient focus on her future goals, on what she is going to do now that her loved one is gone.”

Psychology Today Online, 8 December 2008
Last Reviewed 2 Feb 2009
Article ID: 4737