Children Grieve Differently

By Kristen Nardolillo, LCSW, Cornerstone Hospice Children’s Bereavement Counselor

Many intense feelings may accompany the experience of losing of a loved one. These feelings can be overwhelming to any person, especially a child.

Parents and caregivers often ask me, “what’s the best way to talk to my child about death?” The answer is… There isn’t just one “right” way.

Children grieve differently from adults; they are much more sensitive to the energy that encompasses their environment. Kids can be highly perceptive, often knowing a lot more about the death than adults think they do.

Don’t be afraid to express your own feelings. Some parents/caregivers feel the need to protect their child by hiding or suppressing their own reaction to a loss, out of fear that it could cause a child even more pain.

The problem with this approach is that the child may then begin to mirror the behavior, by hiding and filtering their own expression of grief. They may begin to think that expressions like crying are a bad thing, and refrain from showing others this form of pain. By parents and caregivers openly expressing their own feelings, it in turn shows the child that it is okay to be sad and feel pain after a loss. This also normalizes what the child is experiencing and validates any need for self-expression.

Allow the child to participate in service arrangements. It may be therapeutic for a child. Having them pick out the color of the flowers, is just one way to make them feel included in honoring their loved one. The goal is for the child to feel empowered by becoming an active participant in their grief, rather than a silent observer.

Laugh! Don’t be afraid to laugh a little while you grieve. Kids, and even adults, can think that experiencing joy and happiness after a death means that they are forgetting about, or no longer honoring their deceased loved one. Plan fun activities throughout the week, so that together you can learn that healing does not mean forgetting.

Remember, kids can only experience small doses of intense emotion, which means they may not react to grief the same way an adult would. It is normal for children to show their expression periodically, rather than continuously. Don’t be overly concerned if a child’s grief looks and sounds different from your own. Grief is something we all must experience at some point in our lives, and we all will express this grief in our own unique way.