One out of every 20 children ages 15 and younger faces the death of a parent, according to a study published in the Journal of Hospice & Palliative Nursing. Other studies estimate that between 20 percent and 90 percent of children and teens deal with the death of someone close to them, such as a sibling, grandparent, other family member, friend, or classmate
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, children grapple with grief differently than adults do. The younger a child is, the more difficult it might be for them to accept that death is permanent and irreversible. They can’t always clearly articulate their thoughts and feelings and will often show their grief through actions instead. Children sometimes express their grief in unpredictable ways, not seeming upset at first, but becoming sad or angry later – on and off – at unexpected times.
The AACAP notes that sometimes grieving children revert to behaviors they performed at a younger age or form misconceptions about the death, perhaps even blaming themselves. Often, the adults around them are so consumed with their own grief that they don’t realize they aren’t giving the child the same level of attention they had previously, which also affects the situation.
Every year, Hospice of Tift Area in Tifton, Georgia, holds an event called Camp Reflections that helps children work through grief they are experiencing. The camp is free and geared toward children ages 6-12, though they might also allow children younger than that age range.
“Children are often forgotten in the midst of loss, but they grieve nonetheless,” Kathy Moneypenny, bereavement coordinator, said.
Camp Reflections provides an opportunity for the focus to return to children who might feel they have become lost in the shuffle as the adults around them grieve.
The February 2019 Camp Reflections was the 10th annual camp that gave children the opportunity to use arts and crafts, story time, and music to cope with loss. These activities are in line with the AACAP recommendation that it is best to allow children to express grief in their own ways, rather than attempting to force them to grieve the way adults do. They recommend not forcing a child to attend a funeral if they feel afraid (though other experts also recommend not keeping a child from a funeral they’d like to attend) and using other means to encourage a child to commemorate the deceased, such as saying a prayer, making a scrapbook, looking at photos, or telling stories if those are more comfortable for the child.
Moneypenny reiterated the importance of allowing children to grieve in their own way.
“Children grieve the way they live life: through their play and the cues they receive from the adults in their life,” she said. “Children are limited developmentally with loss because they do not have the emotional language or comprehension skills that are afforded to adults. Camp is intended to help them use their own knowledge base and resources to cope with loss no matter where they are developmentally.”
Camp Reflections will be back to aid grieving children in 2020. In the meantime, Moneypenny recommends the Association for Death Education and Counseling’s Resources page for those looking to better understand and help a grieving child. She notes The Dougy Center also has many grief-related resources geared toward people of all ages, including specific resources for children. These free online resources cover a variety of relevant topics, such as how to discuss funerals and help kids decide if they want to attend or not, how to explain suicide to a child, and how to help ease a child back into school after a death.
Tips for Supporting a Child in Grief
- Create an open environment. Create an environment that lets your kids know that they can ask you any question they may have.
- Honesty is key. Being honest with kids when talking about death is important. When we are not honest, they are left to imagine.
- Be aware of the power of language. Be cautious about the language that you use; kids can take things literally.
- Find teachable moments in everyday life. When someone dies in a Disney movie or a pet dies, use these moments to teach your kids about death.
- Give them the opportunity to say goodbye. A funeral gives your child a chance to say goodbye. Unless they do not want to be there, they should be there.
- Provide ongoing support. There’s a big difference between intellectually understanding death and emotionally understanding it.
Written by: Jay Summer