There is no right or wrong way to grieve; this process is an individual experience. Healing takes time, and it isn’t linear.
Children tend to grieve differently compared to adults. They may experience moments of intense grief symptoms followed by periods of apparent wellbeing or normality, often all within the same day.
Grieving is a very long journey. Bereavement may bring confusion and fear of the unknown. Generally speaking, children from age five will understand that death happens to all living things, that it has a cause and it means permanent separation. Before the age of five, they usually perceive death as something temporary and reversible. As the brain develops and matures, understanding of death and loss increases.
In the first hours, and following days, the child or adolescent is in shock and needs those around them to be truly there, by loving them, welcoming their emotions, and holding and reassuring them. We need to recognise that, no matter how or when the loss happened, grief has to be experienced in order to heal.
How can you help your child?
· Include your child at all times in what’s happening and help them to express their emotions in a safe space and talk about what has happened, so long as they are ready to do so.
· Show your child that they are not alone in this, and they can count on you.
· Make sure they are safe from harm and they eat and drink, keep clean and follow some kind of bedtime routine.
When the child is ready, they will need someone with whom they can talk about the person who passed away and share their emotions. You could support them through photos, memory boxes or stories. Here are some ideas that could help you to be truly there for your child and facilitate them to express their feelings in a safe space:
Memories cards: Together you can create cards with memories about special times they shared with that person, things that the person loved about them (e.g. their smile, their drawings, being amazing as they are…) or about their relationship (e.g. evenings playing with board games, breakfasts together on Sundays…), and experiences they have enjoyed or laughed about together.
A collage or album: Print your child’s favourite photos of that person, photos of them together, pictures of places, or images of significant objects that help your child to connect with that person. You can create a collage with these pictures.
Making “Our Special Box”: Create a unique space to keep things which can help your child to remember times they spent with the person who passed away and feel connected to them. You can add photos, gifts, objects, shells collected on the beach, letters, memories written on cards or paper… These memories will allow them to process the loss and provide some comfort. You can use a shoe box, biscuit tin, or another kind of box. It does not have to be physical. It can also be online or digital storage.
If you notice the following signs in your child and you are worried about them, you will need to ask for professional advice: fear of being alone, loss of appetite, an extended period of sadness or aggressive behaviour, signs of suicidal thoughts, denial about what happened, regressive behaviour (acting like a younger child or baby), difficulties with sleeping, reduced interest in daily activities which your child used to enjoy, withdrawal from friends, difficulties at school or in other areas.
Perhaps you are experiencing this process of grieving too. In that case, I want to let you know that you have the right to feel what you feel, and you can allow yourself to do so. You can support your child through showing your emotions, as this will teach them how to express and cope with grief. It is okay to grieve together. Your initial instinct may be hiding your feelings in an attempt to protect your child. However, if something has happened which effects the entire family, such as the death of a loved one, you can be there for your child without leaving your needs on the side. Being together and truly connected is an essential factor in the healing of all the members of the family. Acknowledge your pain and accept that grief can trigger unexpected emotions, and that is okay. Your grieving process will be unique to you.