As soon as your child is old enough to love someone, she is old enough to grieve. One of your jobs as a parent is to help your child through the process. Children can grieve from the death of a parent, sibling or grandparent, from a divorce, from the loss of a pet or can even grieve the loss of friends if you move. If you don’t help your child through the grief, she can experience more pain and anxiety than she needs to.
The Three Stages
You are not protecting your child by avoiding discussion of the loss. If you don’t talk with your child, your child has to find answers and work out the grief on his own. Preschool children have three stages of grief — early responses, acute grief and adjustment. First responses are usually denial, shock or numbness. When the grief sinks in, your child can feel sad, depressed, angry, guilty, afraid and anxious and may regress. The adjustment phase is when your child learns to accept reality and reestablish his life.
Talking With Children About Death
The younger your child, the more limited her concept of death will be. It’s a mistake, though, to tell your young child that grandma just went to sleep or that daddy went on a trip because that could make her afraid of going to sleep herself or wonder why daddy is not coming back. Be honest when you explain about death. You can explain your beliefs. If your child asks you a question, it’s OK for you to say, for example, that you don’t know, that you wonder about that, too.
A Young Child’s Behavior
A young child who cannot communicate his feelings may act out. He may become clingy, have tantrums, have trouble sleeping, become withdrawn, lose his appetite or start to suck his thumb. If a change in behavior lasts longer than four months, your child may be stuck in his grief. Express your feelings to him and provide a safe zone for your child to express his feelings, too. Reassure your child that his feelings are normal and natural. It’s best for you not to talk too much; listening to your child is better. But when your child does ask you a question, give a straightforward and easy-to-understand answer.
Some kids don’t want to talk to you at all about their grief. That’s OK as long as they don’t become self-destructive, such as drinking, using drugs or cutting themselves to numb their pain. If you see that happening and your child won’t talk to you, find someone else for her to talk to. It could be a family friend, a religious teacher or a therapist.
Grief About Divorce
Kids grieve after a divorce, too, because the loss of a parent brings on the same grief feelings. Your child is losing the only life she has ever known. Make sure your child knows that your divorce is not her fault. Support her feelings and listen to her. Your child may not want to talk to you because her feelings may be because of you. Let her know that she can say whatever she likes and that you will not be angry or hurt.