The grieving process can be hard enough on full-grown adults, let alone children who can’t yet comprehend mortality completely. Often kids react to death in surprising ways that you may not recognize as an effect of the loss. For example, a child may become overtly clingy, yet be too reserved to let you know that he or she is afraid of losing you as well. How much a child understands the passing away of a loved one is based on many factors such as their maturity, age, character and previous experience. However, there are a some common signs that show that your child is having a difficult time across varying ages of childhood.
For young children, the concept of death is can be very vague. Preschoolers have no real experience with loss and get their ideas about it from television or other children. Hence, they often don’t understand the seriousness and finality of the situation. This is why children at this age display unusual behavior and may seem unaffected at first. As a parent, you must give your child time to process these changes in a way she is comfortable with. Don’t force reactions or prod your child with questions. Instead, wait for her to come to you with her queries and worries. Answer her questions as honestly as you can without divulging upsetting details. It’s also important to keep your explanations factual and not focus on the “afterlife” too much as it could lead them into thinking that death is a better option, and make them anxious of more people in their lives wanting to go to this “better place”.
Children above the age of 5 to about 12 are old enough to have a clearer understanding of mortality and experience grief more acutely as they know death is a permanent change. It’s important you let them vent and talk about their grief, though some kids may not want to talk at all. A good way to get them to open up is by sharing in activities that makes it easy to broach the topic, such as drawing or storytelling. Let them bring up the loved one they have lost through these activities and help them deal with their emotions. Children may also have strong links to religion and god at this age and blame themselves or god for the death. It’s important you explain to them what happened in a rational way and make them feel secure.
With teenagers, the signs of grief are more usual, denial, anger, depression and acceptance. However, emotions could run high and acting out could be one of the ways your child tries to make sense of the situation. You will need to watch out for destructive behavior such as drinking and drug abuse. Try to connect with them on a more adult level, showing them how to vent their feelings in a more fruitful way and try to accept this hard fact of life.
Finally, it may also help to reach out to someone else, whether it’s another relative or close friend, a religious or spiritual advisor. If a child or teenager has a very hard time coping or remains depressed for a prolonged period, do consult a mental health professional such as a family therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
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