How to care for bereaved children
The death of a loved one is one of the most painful experiences a person can go through in their life. And for a child, it can be deeply confusing. Here are some ideas to help you navigate the grieving process.
People usually experience five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. It’s important to note that a person will not necessarily go through all of these stages of grief, and not always in this specific order: we all grieve in our own way.
Why grief is important
The process of grief helps to heal the pain and hurt a person may feel following the loss of a loved one. There’s nothing shameful about grieving – and it’s important we allow others, especially children, to move through the process fully, and at their own pace.
Parents or guardians may feel that shielding their children from experiencing the reality of death protects them – but this can, in fact, be harmful. Instead, allowing your child to openly express their grief provides important healing and emotional development. Talking to your child about what they’re feeling, and why, acknowledges their emotions and can help them process fears, questions, hurt or anger. It also gives you insight into your child’s wellbeing: if you have any concerns, perhaps getting a qualified counsellor or therapist involved could be helpful.
Children’s perception of death
A child’s understanding of death and how to handle it varies depending on the stage of their personal development. The understanding of the loss of a loved one progresses as the child matures. This means the way an eight-year-old will handle the death of someone will be quite different to a 12-year-old’s response.
Regardless of your child’s age, talking openly about the death and how your child feels is key. Let them ask questions – you may get ones like, “Where have they gone?” and “Why did this happen?” Though tough to answer, try not to get frustrated by these questions. They’re all part of your child trying to understand the harsh, and complex, reality of life and death. Appreciate that – especially for young children – understanding that someone is no longer physically present may be confusing. Above all, you want to alleviate a child’s fears: it’s natural for them to worry they may lose you, or others around them, too.
Some children may exhibit different behavioural responses after a loss, such as lashing out in anger at adults and bullying their peers. This anger is usually directed at the person who died, as the child may feel they have been abandoned or did not get a chance to say goodbye properly. In this instance, it becomes your responsibility to provide your grieving child with reassurance that everything will be fine and that their feelings of anger are natural and part of the healing process. If you’re concerned by your child’s reactions, it’s best to consult a counsellor or therapist who can offer exercises and tips to help deal with behavioural changes.
Are you grieving too? Be honest
If you’re also grieving, it’s important not to try to put on a ‘brave face’ and conceal your emotions. Not only is it valuable for a child to see you being honest and real about your emotions, and that they share their grief with you, but you also don’t want your child to mimic ‘brave face’ behaviour.
That said, it’s very important you ensure you have the support you need. This is especially important when you’re supporting a grieving child, as well as managing your own grief. Seek out trusted family or friends who you can confide in, and consider seeing a professional counsellor or therapist yourself. Death is devastating, complex and deeply emotional – it is perfectly normal that you will need help navigating through your grief, too.
Guidelines to assist parents/guardians and children in the grieving process:
- When explaining to young children that someone has died, make sure that your language is simple, clear and that you are telling them the truth at a level which they are able to understand.
- Acknowledge the importance of the loss and ensure that both you and the children have allowed yourselves sufficient time to grieve.
- Guardians shouldn’t rush a child into resuming their normal routine (such as school, sports etc). Each individual will ease back into their daily lives when they feel ready.
- If the children feel the need to speak to another adult, they may want to join a bereavement support group or attend grief counselling sessions. This will help them to express their feelings, rather than internalising the pain.
- Take people up on their offers to assist you with anything, be it family, friends, colleagues or teachers.
- Don’t be afraid to be happy and have fun – it shows that you have accepted the circumstances and are beginning to move on.
- Try to focus on the good times and memories that you shared with the deceased.
- Acknowledge the anniversary of the death every year and consider creating some form of memorial tribute to commemorate the day.
- It’s fine to not be thinking about your deceased loved one all time. Don’t harbour feelings of guilt.
- Children of the deceased will understandably need time to come to terms with the death in their own time, displaying changing moods and behaviours in dealing with the death and beyond.
- Children shouldn’t be burdened with the tasks and responsibilities that an adult (guardian or parent) can undertake – the death of a parent does not mean the child(ren) should be treated as adults.
- Teenage children should be encouraged to interact with and confide in their friends. They may prefer this over speaking to a stranger or other adults.
- Parents/guardians should always prioritise the needs of the child(ren) and the household over their personal needs.
- Surround yourself with people who love you.
- The pain felt after the loss of a parent or loved one will heal in time.
Get the help you, or your child, needs
- Community leaders and counsellors, such as religious leaders, school psychologists and more may be able to provide support
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) offer grief support and counselling. Call them on 011 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26. Or click here for more.
- Families South Africa (FAMSA) also offer resources, counselling and support: click here or call 011 975 7106/7.
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