Helping your child cope with grief

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Abraham “AB” Martinez squeezed a stuffed bear’s tummy and heard a sound that made him smile. It was his sister’s heartbeat recorded in a tiny, pink heart box recorder tucked into the bear’s chest. Just two months prior, AB, his parents and siblings were at their sister Lali’s bedside as she breathed her last breath.

“When I miss her, all I have to do is hug this little bear, and I feel close to her,” said AB while hugging the beating heart teddy. AB’s parents noticed that he took his sister’s loss a lot harder than his siblings.

AB was distracted, frustrated and his grades started suffering. “AB has always been a happy kid. Lali’s passing has hit him the hardest,” shared his dad, Lucio Martinez. Martinez and his wife felt AB needed more help than they could provide.

Children grieve in their own way

Children, different than adults, may go through a wide range of behaviors to cope with grief. “Since children cannot express their grief with words, they do so through behavior,” said Mary Ann Crall, child life specialist at Community Regional Medical Center’s pediatric ICU.

Children, Crall said, act out their feelings because they can’t express them verbally. This is usually more evident in smaller children. Toddlers and young children might become clingy, cry or display bouts of anger. A child’s wide range of emotions help them cope with feelings that may seem overwhelming.

Small children do pick up on the anxiety and grief felt by their parents and other adults. “Children notice when adults are sad or anxious. They are able to sense adults’ emotions when someone has died,” said Crall.

Teens and grief

Older kids and teens understand death and know they will not see their loved one again. Teens can express their feelings but some may shy away from dealing with their emotions. Some ways teens might express their grief include:

  • Embarrassment about their feelings

  • Volatile moods

  • Acting in a self-absorbed manner

Teens’ emotional expressions may be overdramatic or repressed. Parents should initiate and encourage conversations that will help older children express their feelings. It’s important for parents to understand that grieving looks different for every child and is a unique feeling. Parents can help children and themselves by letting their child know that all their thoughts and feelings are normal.

Helping your child cope

It’s important for parents to express their emotions with both small children and teens. “Parents should share how they feel. With their little children they can say, ‘Mommy is sad right now, but that’s ok. I am still here for you, and I will still take care of you.’ This shows children that expressing feelings is allowed and normal,” said Crall.

For teenagers, Crall advises parents to check in on them often. “Parents should ask their teens how they are feeling. They should also ask what kinds of emotions they are feeling,” Crall said. Insights on their teen’s mood will help parents learn what their child is experiencing and how together parents and child can deal with the emotions.

Practical tips for grieving as a family

Many times, parents and children are grieving together. This shared process opens the door to joint healing and remembrance of the recently passed loved one. Crall says there are things the family can do together to cope. “Whether it’s journaling, listening to the loved one’s favorite music, or writing a letter that can be taken to the gravesite,” these activities will help the family heal together.

The Martinez family often watches Lali’s favorite shows and movies. “Watching ‘Oliver and Company’ was fun. When we watch it, we know when Lali would laugh, and it makes us happy. We cry too, because we miss her,” AB shared.

Recognizing when to seek professional help

It’s normal for children to be upset and sad and it’s important parents normalize those feelings. “When these feelings interfere with home or school life — like yelling or hitting siblings or getting behind on school — that’s when parents should get help,” Crall advises.

Parents can contact their child’s school for counseling resources. Hospitals, palliative care, and hospice programs provide grief counseling and literature. Child life specialists in healthcare settings can provide additional family support.

AB receives one-on-one counseling for coping strategies to deal with his feelings about losing his sister. “I know that it’s ok to miss her. I am learning that when I do miss her, I can do things to remember her,” he shares.

Helpful resources

A first step for parents should be to seek assistance with their school district office. Many times, schools offer grief counselors to help children process the death of a loved one.

Pediatric offices also provide low-cost, no-cost or private counseling resource referrals. Parents should consult with their pediatrician. There are also several helpful online sites for grieving families: