In Parenting

Bereavement: Helping Children Who Have Lost a Parent

Bereavement is defined as what a person goes through when someone close to them dies or the state of having suffered a loss. The bereavement definition is different from “mourning” which is the outward expression of loss and grief. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

The grief and bereavement process and stages for a child are the same as for an adult: shock, grief, possible depression, anger, denial or emotional distancing, and acceptance, and finally adapting to living in a world without the deceased parent.

Regardless of the age or stage of development, it is a mistake to think that any child is too young to be affected by the death of a parent. Research tells us that even babies are affected by the loss of a parent and as a child gets older and develops a full relationship with parents, the loss becomes even more difficult to manage.

How to Help a Child through the Bereavement Process

It is a very sad thing to witness when any child loses a parent and it’s normal to want to help the child get through the very difficult times. When children lose a parent they need to feel loved and cared for; they need to feel safe and not alone and they need someone to talk to that they can trust.

Most of us don’t know what to say or do. Even parents don’t always know how to handle the situation or which step to take first. Sometimes the other parent is so emotionally distraught he or she may be unable to help the surviving child or children at all.

Other family members or close friends may be called upon to talk with the child, spend quality time, offer comfort, or step in as a surrogate.Sometimes it is another family member who must break the news to the child that the parent is gone.

One of the hardest things to do is to talk to children about something as unpleasant as death. However, it has to be done as soon as possible and talking must continue while the child goes through the grieving process.

Here are some suggestions on how to talk to a child about death:

  • Before taking any action to help a child through the loss of a parent, it’s important to assess how well the child understands what has happened. Bereavement brings with it a state of confusion and depending upon the child’s age, the definition of bereavement is explained differently.
  • After determining how much the child knows and understands, the closest kin to the child, usually the other parent should explain death in the simplest terms possible and allow time for questions and answers. Be clear, gentle and honest with your explanations.
  • Telling the child the truth is of the utmost importance. Preschool age children do not understand the concept of death. When explaining death to a very young child the goal is to help the child grasp the idea that the parent no longer is able to move, speak, or participate in daily life and that the parent won’t be coming back.
  • Saying things like “Daddy is in heaven watching down on us” can be very confusing to a little child. “If he can see us, why can’t we see him?” Telling the absolute truth will help avoid further confusion for most children.
  • Older children have a better understanding of the finality of death and that it happens to everyone. They may need less explanation about what death is, but often need more support in regard to the loss itself and its effect on the child.

Pay Close Attention to Behavior

Children don’t express their feelings the same way adults do and may react with changes in behavior or they may “act out” and start behaving aggressively or in a way that is not normal for them. “Acting out” can be a sign of depression and is not uncommon in children who have experienced a traumatic event.

An article in about the child grieving process suggests that the behaviors like those listed below may be a sign of depression. If so, professional help is needed for the affected child and possibly for other family members. If any of these symptoms are present, don’t ignore them. Instead, find a qualified therapist for the child to talk to.

  • Unable to handle the feelings of sadness
  • Feels sad all the time
  • Cannot be comforted
  • Admits to thinking of suicide or of hurting himself or herself
  • Feels extra irritable
  • Becomes very angry very quickly
  • Has changing grades
  • Withdraws or isolates himself or herself
  • Acts very different from usual
  • Has appetite changes
  • Has low energy
  • Shows less interest in activities
  • Has trouble concentrating
  • Cries a lot
  • Has trouble sleeping

Other signs are excessive crying, clinginess, missing school, illnesses (real or not), poor grades and fighting with other kids. Although any one of these is not an unusual occurrence, when there are multiple signs present, attention must be paid before the situation becomes worse.

If a child of any age threatens to hurt him or herself, hurts another person or talks about suicide, treat the situation as urgent. Make contact with a therapist, medical professional, or school and clergy members for immediate assistance or advice.

Other Ways to Help

  • Include the child in the mourning process, funerals and services, or any other customs related to bereavement. If the child is uncomfortable with the proceedings he or she shouldn’t be forced to attend. However, most children prefer not to be left out and appreciate being allowed to participate.
  • It’s important to adhere to as normal of a routine as possible under the circumstances and to continue to enforce rules and guidelines. Kids need boundaries even more when emotionally distressed.
  • Notify the child’s school and teacher about what has happened. Teachers and school counselors can serve as a resource to the other parent and can provide additional support to the child.
  • School professionals may also know about another child or children who have lost a parent. Sometimes just knowing that they are not “the only ones” that have experienced such a loss can help with recovery. Some schools offer group counseling right within the school.
  • Bereavement groups can be a source of great comfort to adults and children. Hospice centers, doctors’ offices, clergy, church groups, hospitals and other institutions can help you locate a bereavement group that is appropriate for a child. Talking, telling their story and listening to other’s stories can help kids feel like someone really understands what they are going through.
  • Reading books is very therapeutic for some kids. Very young kids may benefit from picture books and stories. Older children are helped through reading about others who experienced the death of a loved one. Books can be a tremendous help in explaining death to kids and in helping them to feel less alone. Books help children as well as parents and other adults to process their grief.

Suggested Reading

These are just a few of the countless number of helpful books written for children, teens and adults that directly address the loss of a loved one.

  • Grandma’s Scrapbook by Josephine Nobisso
  • Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss by Michaelene Mundy
  • Write from Your Heart: A Healing Grief Journal by Kathrine Peterson
  • 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child by Dougy Center Staff
  • Sammy’s Mom Has Cancer Paperback by Sherry Kohlenberg
  • Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One: A Guide for Grownups by William C. Kroen
  • Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love by Earl A. Grollman

Inspirational Books

Teens and adults need just as much help and love after the loss of a loved one as do young children. Here is some suggested reading of books geared toward an older age group. They are comforting and inspirational.

  • Martha Whitmore Hickman is the author of the best selling book Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief. It is full of inspirational bereavement quotes and thoughts to comfort those working through their grief.
  • Happiness Is A Choice…”Your” Choice is a book by Dawn Christine. It contains tips and quotes on how to be happy after losing a loved one.
  • Encouragement for the Grieving Heart: 365 Uplifting Quotes and Scriptures for Coping with Loss by C. Cherie Hardy contains gentle, memorable quotes like “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” timeless quotes to help ease the pain of loss.

Losing a loved one is the most difficult event that a child can experience. Being honest, and bestowing love, attention on a grieving child will go a long way to boosting the healing process.

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