Children & Loss: What to Expect

Kids crave ritual.

Loss can make children feel even more out of control than usual. Providing them with a chance to hold a ceremony or ritual promotes their sense of personal agency. Establishing a predictable, clear routine is especially important given the changes that inevitably accompany loss. Knowing what to expect gives kids a sense of authority when they otherwise feel out of control.

Kids struggle to understand.

At any age, disbelief and denial are common responses to loss. The natural brain development of children puts them at a disadvantage in coming to terms with the loss. Children do not have the capacity to fully grasp concepts, may ask repetitive questions, or may be confused. A clear, consistent message delivered patiently in frank language is best.

Kids tell their stories.

Children are naturally drawn to stories and storytelling. Storytelling creates cohesion and fosters understanding. By becoming authors of their own experience, children can regain a sense of control and understanding about their loss. Allowing children the freedom to tell their stories gives them a sense of self-competence and confidence as they face challenges. Journaling, drawing, creating and communicating with others about loss promotes healing from grief and honors the child’s relationship with that which has been lost.

Kids collect mementos.

As you are probably aware, children are natural collectors, hoarding items that parents may find themselves secretly discarding when the child isn't paying attention. In the event of a loss, this tendency to collect may intensify. This comes from a desire to reinforce their developing identities and possess items that they like and identify with. During loss, kids often seek keepsakes, items, and ways to honor and memorialize that which has been lost. Importantly, many children fear that they will forget those who have died. Memories fade over time, especially in minds that are still developing at the time of the loss. This is scary for children who cling to memories as their only way to feel connected.

Kids are still kids.

Play is the work of childhood. Children use play to work out aggression, to manage anxiety, and of course, to have fun! In the face of loss, they often vacillate between grief and play, and may surprise you with their easy ability to shift attention away from grief rather than wallowing as adults tend to do. And being kids, they love boxes, gifts and treats. They love receiving mail, and they love a personalized touch that says I love you—I understand that you are suffering, and I wish you well.

Kids feel real pain.

Children somaticize, meaning they tend to express grief through their bodies rather than putting words to their complex emotions. You might notice an increase in aches, pains, and nebulous boo boos. Stomach and headaches are common. They also may act out aggression, anxiety, and sadness through their bodies. Soothing words and gestures will help them understand that they will feel better one day.

Kids seek validation.

 Acknowledging and legitimizing the child's loss affirms a child’s sense of himself as a valuable member of a larger society. We recommend that adults speak directly and frankly about loss, using concrete language and avoiding euphemisms. In empathically engaging with a child about loss, you should not be too worried about upsetting them or making things worse. Like adults, children benefit from social support: it moderates stress and makes us less prone to anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Try to let the child lead and give only as much information as the child has directly asked for or can absorb.

Kids experience fear.

Anxiety, fears and worries escalate in times of loss. Many children regress to behaviors they have outgrown or that are more commonly seen in younger children. You may notice sleep difficulties, nightmares, or a fear of the dark. In school, students may have difficulty concentrating, may easily lose focus, or may develop academic troubles. Over time, this should subside, so don't be too afraid to indulge them a little with childlike measures to make them feel less afraid.

Kids feel guilty.

Although it is completely unwarranted for a child to feel guilty about the death of a loved one, guilt is a common response in children. It is human nature for children to have aggressive feelings toward loved ones. Sibling rivalry, parental opposition, frustration, and competition with friends are all examples of healthy aggression. Aggression is part of the human condition. So why are children especially prone to guilty feelings? Unlike adults, children do not draw lines between reality and fantasy. They may believe that their aggressive feelings somehow inflicted pain or caused the loss.  They may fear that any normal anger they may have had toward the deceased makes them inherently bad. Children need to be reassured that they are not to blame for the death of a loved one, and that anger is normal. They also need space to honor and express their love for the deceased, to reinforce the self-perception that they are loving and kind.