Regardless of how old we are when it happens, there is nothing like losing a parent. For younger children, it is essential to remember that they are not processing what happened with the same brain we are as adults.
If the death is sudden, a child may feel bewildered, lost, in shock, angry, anxious, or even worried that they somehow were responsible for their parent’s passing. If the death is from a long illness, they may experience anger, sadness, loneliness – “no one understands how I’m feeling,” and other common grief emotions.
Common Signs Children Are Grieving
- Crying, sometimes uncontrollably, tantrums
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Headaches and stomach aches
- Anxiety about what may happen next
- Questioning everything
- Talking about death
- Loss or regression of skills (baby talk)
- Poor sleep, nightmares
- Pretending nothing happened
- Problems with focus and/or relationships at school
- “Clingy,” they may not let you out of their sight
There is no “wrong way” for a child to grieve. Our job as adults is to support them and allow them to feel what they are feeling. It can be more challenging than you think because we bring our “adult emotions and coping skills” to the table, and the child may have no basis for understanding. Plus, you’re grieving, too, so there is a lot coming at you!
Some Things You Can Do
- If the child wants to talk and “tell their story,” let them. Just listen. Talking allows them to process their emotions.
- Try to establish a routine as soon as possible. There is comfort in predictability – for both of you!
- Keep teachers and family friends informed.
- Stay connected. Hugs, family meals, and just watching TV together can bring comfort.
- Answer their questions honestly. You may want to protect them from certain truths, but now may not be the time. You will likely want to have some answers prepared for some tough questions, like “what if something happens to you?” “Did I cause this to happen?”
Even as you’re working through your own grief and your world being turned upside down, your child needs you! Let friends and family help. There is no shame in asking for help. Let your support system of family and friends take shape. If people offer to help, let them! And if you need to talk to someone, we’re here for you!