Reaching Out to Bereaved Children

When we reach out to bereaved parents, we must not neglect their children. Bereaved children do mourn and they need our attention to help them work through their grief.

Infants of less than 2 years can sense a loss or pick up the grief of the parent. Children aged 2 to 6 years may think that death is reversible. Those from 6 to 9 years old often fear death as contagious and they want to know its causes. Up to 12 years, they may see death as punishment for bad behaviour and they worry about who will provide and care for them after a death. Teenagers will question the meaning of life when a death occurs and they are uncertain how to handle their mixed emotions.

Inadequate mourning by bereaved children can cause depression and inability to form close relationships in adult life. Norman Wright (2006) states that, “When a child does not grieve over a loss, a similar loss in adult life can reactivate the feelings associated with the childhood experience. Thus a childhood loss can predispose us to oversensitivity and then depression.” At the meantime, adjusting to new roles in the family can lead to bickering. We also need to help them resolve these issues.

Studies show that bereaved children can cope better when talking about the dead parent is easy and fewer daily changes are taking place (Worden, 2003). However, it is also true that most adults are unable to help their children grieve because they have never learned to properly grieve themselves.

Nevertheless, here are some general tips for helping bereaved children grieve:

  1. Talk freely with the children about the death individually and as a family.
  2. Give consistent answers to their questions about the death, even when they are asked repeatedly.
  3. Cry together with the children. They need to know that you understand the depth of their pain.
  4. If there are negative behaviour changes because they cannot express their feelings, talk to them about the changes but do not harshly discipline them or allow their bad behaviours to become a habit.
  5. Allow the children to play even as the bereaved adults mourn as they cope better through play activity.
  6. Allow the children to cling to you more often than usual as physical affection is comforting to them.
  7. Be watchful if a child is harboring any blame, guilt or bitterness about the loss and deal with it immediately, even if you are in the midst of your own sorrow.
  8. Don’t change pre-loss daily routines of the children unless absolutely necessary.
  9. Unless your children have been sleeping with you, don’t get them to sleep with you just to avoid facing your grief alone or keep them up late for your companionship.
  10. If the children have difficulty concentrating in their studies, don’t over-emphasize on education at the expense of their emotional and spiritual healing.
  11. Don’t create pressure on the eldest son to be “the man of the house”.

Lastly, always remember that we need to communicate with bereaved children at their level of understanding. For young children, drawing or art activities are one good way (see picture below).