How Children Mourn: Adapting To Grief As A Family

03/16/2017 05:58 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2017

Losing a loved one is arguably the hardest thing we have to cope with in life, and for children who don’t have the awareness or vocabulary to make sense of it, grieving can be especially painful. AS parents, the difficulty of managing our own grief, coupled with our child’s loss, can be debilitating.

As a culture, we have a healthy dose of denial when it comes to our own mortality; we often feel that it is “morbid” to discuss it, even though it is the most natural and inevitable thing in our existence. We don’t have conversations with our own parents as they age about practical matters like how much intervention they would want if they were to lose consciousness, or how they would want their belongings handled. It’s just too difficult, to painful to think about. The problem is, we end up dealing with these unpleasant things when we are grieving.

It’s not as though we can protect ourselves or our children entirely from this kind of loss, but there are things we can do to help them cope and to buffer the shock within our family. Here are some considerations and strategies for helping your family with the loss of a loved one.

Denial: the first phase of grief. A young child often does not initially react to hearing that someone has died. Parents are often concerned that their child has no initial reaction or visible grief. This is normal. Think about when your child was a baby and you left the room. That baby didn’t yet have what scientist’s call “object permanence” and so when you walked out of the room, your baby was in essence, grieving. It’s only later in development that children understand when the ball rolls under the bed, it’s still there, they just can’t see it.

There is a similar case to be made when it comes to grieving. Remember that a young child's perception is oriented around her five senses. Perception is concrete, short-range and based on the present. A young child does not comprehend the concept of death. A person is gone; then a person is there. When a person is gone and then still gone and then still gone, a child will grieve at each moment when he or she feels the person's goneness. So a child may not grieve at all until the cumulative affect of “goneness” inspires feelings of loss.

Describe death in concrete terms. It’s important to lessen confusion use the words death and dying. Answer their questions honestly, without euphemisms such as passed on, went to sleep, or took a trip. Children will ask if they want to know more, but don’t force details on them. If her body language shows her to be uncomfortable, set the subject down.

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