Lissa Dutton offers advice for parents on comforting grieving children and teens in the wake of the death of a classmate.
Depending on their stage of development, children can perceive death in vastly different ways. A child in preschool may view death as reversible or temporary. Younger school-age children may understand that death is permanent, but may think of it as a spirit or a person. Children starting around nine or 10 through adolescence have a more concrete understanding of the permanence of death both for themselves and others.
When talking about death to young children, parents should use simple and brief language such as, “Something sad happened last night and your friend Susie died.” It is important for the adults to be calm and to pick a time that is quiet and not rushed. They should allow time for the child to ask questions and to comfort them. If the child does not understand, the adults can give more details in simple, direct terms such as, “They had a special sickness where they couldn’t get better and their body stopped working.”
Answer questions in age-appropriate but honest terms, checking in that children understand so that there are no misconceptions. If a child hears that someone “went to sleep” instead of died, he or she may then be scared of going to sleep. Children also should understand the difference between a temporary and fatal illness so that they don’t get scared when they get sick that they may die.
To validate children, adults can reflect back what the child says and ask them how it is for them, rather than having the parent encourage them to move on. Some children may cry and others may seem to have no reaction when hearing about the death of a friend. Parents need to respect these different ways of grieving.
Children grieve differently from adults. Young children will not feel grief all of the time like adults. They may grieve for short periods, then move to playing. They may also act out their grief in their play. It’s important not to dwell too much on sad feelings and to move to activities that make them feel better.
With teens, losing a friend or classmate can be akin to losing a family member. It’s important to say something, but not to give advice. Teens need a parent to be able to sit in silence with them and respect the personal way they are grieving without rushing them. If your teen does not talk, that does not mean that he or she does not want you there. Just giving a hug or sitting in silence can be the best way to support him or her. Unlike younger children who may cling to adults in grief, teens may want to spend time with their friends.
Regardless of age, it is essential to let children know that is it OK to express their emotions, including anger or sadness. Children of all ages need to grieve in their own ways, in their own time, without any judgment, and with sympathy and compassion.
Lissa Dutton, MA, IMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist intern at CHAC (Community Health Awareness Council). She is also a volunteer at Kara, where she helps offer grief support to children, teens, families & adults.