Children process everything a little differently than adults, including grief, but that doesn’t mean these things are easier for them.
When a child loses a loved one, it can be excruciating for them, and just like adults, they go through different stages before they finally come to terms with what’s happened.
Death is hard for everyone, but especially for children. Once you learn to recognize the stages children go through when grieving, it’ll be easier for you to learn how to help them.
Children’s Stages of Grief
Most experts agree there are five stages of grief that children go through when a parent, grandparent, or other family member dies. They are as follows:
If someone close to them dies, children usually don’t accept that that person has died. It’s usually difficult for them to believe or even understand what has happened, and the younger they are, the harder it is. Depending on their age, they may deny or ignore that the death has occurred for several hours or even several weeks.
If they’re very young, children can experience separation anxiety during the denial stage. They may also be very quiet, act out while they’re at school, or even withdraw from certain activities that they used to love doing. This is because they’re trying to process what happened but they haven’t gotten there yet.
Kids can become angry at everyone during this phase, or they may just show anger towards the person who died. Young children don’t completely understand death and can sometimes not realize that the person being dead and the fact that that person isn’t around anymore are related. They may start bullying kids at school or even talk back to their teachers, among other things.
Even worse, children don’t usually acknowledge this as anger and may wonder what is going on themselves. The anger they feel at this point can be demonstrated numerous ways.
We all know that children have great imaginations and a sense of magic that they consider real. Because of this, it is not at all unusual for them to bargain with their higher power so that their loved one will be brought back to them.
As adults, we know this isn’t going to happen, but it’s much more difficult for children to grasp this concept, so they continue with their bargaining.
Children can also bargain because they believe something they did was the cause of their loved one’s death. They promise to change their behavior if their higher power will simply bring back a loved one who’s died.
Once it finally hits them that their loved one is never coming back and they’re gone for good, a deep depression can begin for that child.
Depression can be minor or severe, but it’s important to realize and acknowledge that it exists. Some of the signs your child might be depressed include irritability, obsession with death, withdrawing from family and friends, and changes in the way they sleep or eat.
If the depression is severe enough, it’s a good idea to get the child some professional help. Handling depression on their own might be way too difficult for kids, especially very young ones.
The acceptance phase does not mean that the child is not going to have both good and bad days from now on, but it does mean that they feel better about moving on with their life after a loved one has died.
Occasions such as holidays, birthdays, and the anniversary of their loved one’s death can be harder on them, but overall, acceptance means they can move forward and take things one day at a time.
Remember that just because a child has accepted the situation doesn’t mean that grieving has ended. Grief is usually a lifelong process. It does, however, mean that their life will continue to improve into the future.
What You Can Do to Help
Even if you’re grieving, too, it’s essential to help the child in your life process the death of a loved one any way you can. The first rule of thumb is to encourage the child to talk about it.
Many adults find that they, too, want to withdraw from the world after a death has occurred, but neither they nor the children in their lives should hold everything inside and stop themselves from talking about the situation.
Always encourage the child to talk, rant and rave, cry, or whatever they feel like doing to help themselves feel better.
You can also encourage them to draw or write about their experience, maybe even keeping a diary in the meantime. Expressing themselves with art or words is a great way for people of any age, but especially young people, to handle the death of a loved one.
If you feel that nothing is working, you may want to consider taking the child to a child psychologist or therapist. Many children feel better when talking to a stranger about things like this.
Like adults, children go through five stages of grief when a loved one dies – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is no standard timeframe for a child to get through these stages because it takes different children different lengths of time.
The important thing to remember is to acknowledge these stages and allow kids to go through them at their own pace.
Encourage children to talk about the death and express themselves through writing or creating art, and consider professional therapy if you think it’s necessary.