Grieving for kids insights from experience & more

Boundaries with grieving youth and what to expect.

A resource by Sarah Jeanne Browne

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I was a child when I lost my grandpa, a teen when I lost my dad’s girlfriend to cancer and in my twenties when I lost my grandma and a friend to suicide. I did not have the right supports set up so from experience I know what I needed and due to research I have found some other insights.

These insights are from my personal subjective views.

  1. Using word “die” for little kids is a point of controversy for many people and orgs. I will give my own view here. This word is scary for anyone to hear because it is so finite and traumatic. Keeping them emotionally safe is better with a shield of some protection from the full truth as they may (and usually do) start to question their own mortality or yours and catastrophize who will die next. You can say “They had to go away. They will not be back. It is not your fault.” (I tend to prefer closed casket or some protection there. I was freaked out to see my grandpa and put candies into his coffin thinking he could eat them in heaven and had a breakdown). It is the same with any other type of traumatic experience for a child. For example, if a child knows an adult with an addiction or such patterns and can’t understand how to help them but the adult is also not healthy in general you can say that person is sick not bad. Usually boundaries and a court can help with the separation from there. They can’t handle knowing there is an end to life and that people are bad or mean harm. That said, no matter what they should speak up if they are being hurt. But you have to show them that it isn’t their fault. In some way by calling someone bad to a kid actually causes the kid to want to defend them. They may not be ready to understand suffering fully yet.
  2. A child’s relationship to grief is complicated and something needing caution. They may not be ready for a full understanding so you have to meet them where they are developmentally. That said there are some indicators your child is reacting to grief with the following. I’ll be referencing Tide Well Hospice age appropriate behaviors along with my own views:
  3. Infants and Toddlers: They read grieving facial expressions of adults around them. Their crying increases. They may regress to bed wetting or other behaviors. They may have separation anxiety. The non-verbal communication of an adult can impact a child. Having personal boundaries to vent or react to your personal grief is important. It isn’t good for the child to see you cry or get upset. That’s because they rely on coregulation. They mirror your mentality. If you are self-regulating and able to self-soothe, then you can soothe them. You do not have to explain the death to them in any way that might upset them. You just help them cope through soothing such as holding them, singing to them, making sure their needs are met and giving them play. You can't act like anything has changed. They will wonder and if you can try to redirect it in a positive way that it's okay to miss that person but they will not be back. Refine how you may say this. Don't scare them. That's worse.
  4. Ages 3-7: Kids think the person is sleeping or may come back. They react to non-verbal communication and overall sadness of the adult. They look to the adult for reasoning that the person isn’t coming back. As they get older they can understand this more. At this stage the main thing is to note the finite nature of life. They will want to express their feelings about how they feel about that in general. Give them that opportunity and coping methods. Reduce panic as a person by not sharing your pain to them openly. They look to you for stability and the feeling that everything will be okay. They need to believe their life is in control. You have to keep that mentality but it’s okay to explore topics of grief such as what they missed about the person. It’s important though that they do not consume triggering information about grief. For example, I was in second or third grade and a teacher read a book about death during reading time. This was not the right way to discuss it. It triggered me and I was unprepared and I wanted my mom there and I was scared. They helped me through it but triggering content is always unconsented because the child doesn't know how they will respond or should respond to it. Later as a preschool teacher I learned other teachers knew not to introduce death to kids i.e. "die" term. Unnecessarily triggering them vs giving them space to understand it is different. There is a grief expert I will leave unnamed who discussed the importance of protecting her kids from watching a movie about a kid grieving their dad or anything to do with the way their dad died. Even if the makers intent is to help with grief, triggering is not good. It’s also important to not say platitudes such as they are in a better place. The child will want to go to that place with them. Platitudes themselves are triggering in this way.
  5. Ages 8-11: It is still important that you do not make a child feel like they need to comfort you. There’s a song “Because of You” by Kelly Clarkson where she discusses the need for the parent not to rely on the child for emotional support, connection or help. There needs to be a boundary between an adult’s self-healing journey and the need of the child to feel emotionally safe. That’s not to say you can’t invite discussion. At this point it is too obvious for them that the person is deceased and will not come back. But there is still an inner self-worth thing happening where they wonder if they could have impacted it all or prevented the death. There are questions about the unfairness of life. Many people turn to using spirituality or their own philosophies about this but it’s important to acknowledge you don’t have all the answers. This is important to their development as an individual. Their coping strategies must come from them. If they want to believe in heaven or say there isn’t, you must let them come to that thought authentically. Often, in peer support groups this can create tension. It can create tension in families. The important thing is not how the child comes to comfort themselves or explain the death but you give them the space to explore their views, feelings and theories without shame or judgment. That’s also a message in general about not controlling their grief or the person they are. You can still instill the values of your belief systems. As a child, sometimes it’s okay that they are a little self-directed in this way. Again telling them the person that died is happier now, that they are not suffering anymore or in a better place can trigger the child to want to join them or dislike this world too. They must know it is not their fault or even this world’s fault that the person died. They are in the mode of what can I control? Is the world good or bad? Is it my fault? Can I prevent things like this happening? They look to you for emotional safety to explore their own thoughts but also boundaries with your personal grief. It is okay to say you are grieving. It is important that you do not break down in the way that you rely on them to comfort you. It’s better that you say “I feel sad about this loss too” than to have a panic attack or meltdown in front of them. You can be human too. It’s how you let them see or react to you that matters. Don't ask leading questions. Don’t ask “Does this make you feel sad or angry?” or anything where asking them how they feel a certain way can lead them to feel that way or assume they should be feeling that way. As for reactions at this age, they may feel shame, angry, sad, withdrawal or other emotions. There are also two other outcomes: They may either avoid the discussion of death or they may start to pour their grief into other things like perfectionism, overachieving, performing or masking their grief through an activity/behavior. These are things to watch out for because it means they need a better outlet for their pain. Do not shame or say anything they are feeling are wrong - even if it may cause them to act out. Do not ever deny a hug with their consent or emotional support or a kind word but remember they are not adults and these are big feelings and they may not always have the words to express them so they will act out. Blind obedience doesn’t create a loving relationship anyway but it’s important not to discipline these behaviors as though they are a bad kid. They are struggling and it’s okay. You remain calm no matter how they act or yell. As long as you are a supportive presence, you can help them manage or prevent outbursts by letting them share their feelings.
  6. Age 12-18: They understand death but it’s still complex for them. They are still questioning their role in it. Oftentimes parents can try to have the answers for them or have a neatly laid out guide to how they should explore their feelings. They may not expect the grief to carry on for life don't say things like “It will get better.” This may traumatize the child itself that you say what you think they should feel and lead to more rebellion. As any age, you do not force your conclusions about life and death. But you help them figure out their life in response to the death. This is age of constructing and deconstructing their identities from their childhood as they come into their own. They may not be the same child who maybe believed people are all good at heart or to give the benefits of the doubt. They may feel a greater betrayal from the world for allowing injustice and suffering. Grief is a trigger for kids to think about how the world works on a complex level. They may want to explore the meaning of suffering itself. That will not look the same for everyone. Let them question things to release the trauma. Give them the opportunity to speak up but also probe them to talk because at any age they may repress feelings. Pain is okay to feel. Have a boundary with your own pain and theirs. There is no true end to coregulation. They still look for you for emotional safety. You can share how you have dealt with things without leaning on them. You can share how life is unfair and how you feel about it. But note that the child at really any age will want to protect you from YOUR pain so there must be a wall between expression and explanation. That doesn't mean you can't cry. They do not have to see all your thought processes which they may be too young for. Don't ask leading questions. Watch out for triggering content and conversations. Get consent.

At the end of the day, there is no right way to grieve. This is my own theory from my grief experiences and knowing that the adults in your life can make or break how you cope. There is no true end to grief. There are times to listen but it’s important to give emotional support through kind words and even contact like a hug or hand on their shoulder as long as appropriate and consensual. Speaking of, it’s okay to tell your child they can tell someone “no” to how that adult or person wants to comfort them or express themselves to them. People should always ask before hugging. Some kids are not huggers. However it is important that you are right there with them so no one can take advantage of the opportunity of a grieving youth. Do not leave them alone with any adult. This isn’t just about grief vulnerability but as a point of caution in general that you may not be able to control what input the child is given. I worked at a summer camp and there had to be two counselors with a child at any time. Any setting working with kids should have some system in place where there are not any opportunities for taking advantage of a child. Unfortunately when a child needs an adult most is the likeliest time someone will cross a boundary no matter good or bad intentions. Be aware of any input or material your child is consuming and approve it. That’s not about control. That’s about consent and exploitation prevention.

My Inspiration

Life and grief!

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