Creating a Safe Space for Grieving Children

July 9, 2020

For children who feel left alone in the world after profound loss, there are ways to mitigate the harm.

Tanuja Gandhi, MD, a practicing psychiatrist at Bradley Hospital, Rhode Island, provides steps to identify grief in children and ways health care providers can address symptoms of grief after loss.

Grief is a phenomenon common to all of us. It is the process of adjusting emotionally to the loss of a loved one. It is a universal, yet personal experience. Like adults, children can also have very strong feelings about the loss of a loved one and may experience and express grief differently than adults. A child’s understanding of loss varies depending on their age and stage of development.

When helping children cope with feelings of loss, it helps to first find out what the child already knows and understands about the situation. Think about creating a safe space for the child to have an open conversation about what they know, and their worries to help pursue an honest conversation about the situation. When having this conversation, it is vital to keep the child’s age in mind and tailor the information to their stage of development. These are difficult conversations both for children and adults. It is okay for parents or guardians to show their emotions when talking about their feelings, as this helps model for children, how to understand what they are going through, to help process their sadness and to know that it’s okay to be upset when you lose someone.

When children experience the loss of a loved one, their reactions may vary depending on their age, level of development and understanding of loss. Younger children under aged 5 years may present with changes in their daily routine, sleep, appetite, and other emotional reactions to the loss. Younger children may perceive the loss of a loved one a temporary separation.

Older children, around aged 8 to 12 years, have some understanding of illness and a growing understanding of death as a permanent situation. Their experience of loss may present as changes in daily routine, appetite, sleep but also as a stronger emotional reaction. They may have worries and fears about their own safety and security because older children have some understanding of death and loss. They may also have a lot of questions about the circumstances of death of their loved one.

To help older children cope with feelings of loss, it helps to have a simple, and honest conversation about the situation while again keeping in mind the child’s ability to process the information. Sometimes, children have feelings of guilt and regret that accompany sadness around the loss which can often be difficult for them to talk about. Each child deals with these feelings differently. It is important for caregivers and family members to meet the child where they are at and support them in their experience of grief and bereavement.

For more on this topic:

Bereavement-Related Depression

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Children and Grief

How Children Grieve — Persistent myths may stand in the way of appropriate care and support for children