The death of a parent, brother, sister, grandparent, other family member, friend—or even news of a catastrophic world event—can throw a child into a tailspin of confusion. The child’s feelings may range from confusion to sadness to anger to guilt, all in a matter of days or even hours.
For parents, how you respond to your hurting child can make the difference in how your child processes her grief and moves forward.
“Children can face devastating things,” says Ilisse Perlmutter, a New York-based child and adolescent psychiatrist and member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “It’s really what happens next that matters.”
One issue parents struggle with is how to ease a bereaved child back into the school routine. When should the child return? How much should the parent tell the teacher? Who should tell the child’s classmates?
Some schools are better equipped than others to help a bereaved child, says Mary Andersen, executive director at the Cove Center for Grieving Children in Meriden, Conn. The Cove Center trains social workers, teachers, and school administrators to work with grieving children and promotes a school-based, peer-support model.
Even if your child’s school doesn’t offer a range of services, reaching out to teachers before your child returns to class gives him the best chance of success. Teachers, the school counselor, and the school social worker can all be on the lookout for signs of depression and anxiety in a child, which a grieving parent may miss. The teacher can also talk with students in the class ahead of time and let them know their classmate suffered a loss. This takes the pressure off the child, who might be stressed about how to tell his friends.
Here are some tips from our experts on how to help your child return to school while working through her grief.
- Consider the child’s developmental stage. “A 4-year-old is different from a 14-year-old, emotionally and cognitively,” Perlmutter says. “Everything should be driven by the developmental stage.” A younger child might not understand the finality of death. He might think the person is asleep or away on a trip. With an older child, your focus might need to be on how to express emotions.
- Find out the reasons your child does or doesn’t want to return to school. If she doesn’t want to go, she may be afraid the other kids will say insensitive things. Or she might feel like she just doesn’t care about math. If you know what her fears are, you can help figure out how to address them. If your child can’t wait to return to school, she might be trying to bury her feelings and not think about the loss.
- Talk to the teacher about modifying schoolwork. Your child may need to return to school for just a few hours a day at first, gradually working toward staying for the full day. Or your child might need to take a break in the counselor’s office after sitting in class for a couple of hours. She might also need time to catch up on missed work or temporarily be offered a lighter homework load.
- Encourage the teacher to talk to students about what to say—and what not to say—to a bereaved classmate. Just saying “I’m sorry,” means a lot. Andersen says another compassionate response is “I’m here for you if you ever just need to talk.” She also says that a simple hug goes a long way. Some remarks, despite being well-intentioned, cause more pain than comfort, for example, “At least your grandfather is no longer in pain.”
- Talk with your child about what she might say when she returns to school. Some children want to tell everyone. Others don’t. “Let kids know they can say as little or as much as they like, and it’s OK,” Perlmutter says.
- Keep your home life as stable as possible. A child who didn’t need a set schedule before might suddenly need structure. “Their life is in chaos, and they’re looking for stability,” Andersen says. “They feel out of whack with their peers, and need to feel safe at home.”
- Let teachers know you welcome their observations about your child. You need to know about any changes. Some kids who never misbehaved will suddenly act out. A child who always got straight A’s may stop turning in homework. A formerly social student may isolate herself.
- Work with the teacher to address lessons that could be difficult. If a family tree project is coming up, you need to know. If your child’s class will be making birdhouses as a Father’s Day gift and your child just lost his father, you need a heads-up.
- Seek out counseling, art therapy, bereavement support groups, and other school- or community-based resources. If your child shows signs of anxiety or depression, look for a child psychiatrist. Even if your child appears to be OK, know that she needs a safe place to express her feelings.
- At home, don’t make death an off-limits subject. “Parents may be afraid of the topic, but there is a continuum in life, and death is a reality,” Andersen says. Death can come up naturally in a variety of circumstances. By talking about death matter-of-factly, your child can feel comfortable asking questions.
- Talk about the person who died. Talk and laugh about the good times. If you pack up every photo, your child might get the message that he’s not allowed to mention the person he loved.
- Help your child find kids her age who have experienced a loss. Having a network of friends who have had similar experiences can help your child feel less alone.
- Watch for signs that your child is pushing down his feelings. When your child says “Everything is fine,” dig deeper. If he becomes a perfectionist at school, throws himself into sports, or fills his days with socializing, encourage him to slow down and spend more time at home.
- Don’t overschedule your child. Likewise, keeping your child super-busy may keep tears at bay, but your child needs time to decompress and feel her feelings. Talk to your child about holding on to only the activities that make her happy.
- Don’t let your grief overwhelm you. “It’s frightening for kids to see their parent curled up in a ball,” Andersen says. “Don’t avoid your feelings, but think about kids and their observations....If you’re falling apart in front of your child every day, your child’s world is falling apart.” Make sure you aren’t expecting your child to be your therapist. Find a professional to help you grieve while taking care of a family.
- Be sensitive to holidays and other special days. You may not be able to bear the thought of putting up a tree for Christmas, but think of your child. “Having traditions is important,” Andersen says. “They strengthen the child’s resilience.” Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries can bring feelings of grief to the surface. Talk about those feelings.
- Make sure your child has opportunities to exercise. Spend time outdoors together as a family, and help your child make physical activity a habit. If your child is angry, consider taking him to a gym where there’s a punching bag.
- Accept grief as a long-term process, not something that has an end point. Check in frequently with your child, asking how intense her grief is on a scale of 1 to 10. Check in with yourself, as well, asking the same question.
The loss of a loved one can feel like the end of the world, especially for a child. By helping your child mourn the loss, at home and at school, your child can build a new normal, one where happy memories coexist with hope for a bright future. “If given the right environment,” Perlmutter says, “children can be enormously resilient.”
Suggested Activities for Dealing With Grief in Children
Funeral for a goldfish: Having a mock funeral for a goldfish can help a child understand the difference between life and death, says Mary Andersen of the Cove Center. Talking about death as it relates to a goldfish can help your child ask questions and process your answers. This is effective because he has no emotional attachment to the fish. “Bring the topic of death to the child’s level so you can discuss it,” Andersen says. You can get a dead goldfish from a pet store.
Body tracing: Spread a piece of butcher paper on the floor and ask your child lie on it. Trace an outline of her body with a marker. Then, give her some markers and tell her to draw what she feels. Andersen says some children will draw a hole near the heart, while others might draw a lightning bolt near the head. Some will draw their emotions outside of the body. “There is a disconnect that is revealed,” Andersen says.
Memory book or box: Help your child make a scrapbook, or fill a box with photos and other mementos and keepsakes. “It’s theirs, and there are no rules,” Perlmutter says. “They can add whatever they want.” Browse the book or box with your child, encouraging her to talk about her feelings.
Feelings cube: Make a cube out of poster board and write a different feeling on each side: happy, sad, confused, guilty, worried, and angry, Andersen says. Toss the cube back and forth, spinning it in the air. When family members, including your child, catch the cube, they must look at the feeling that’s shown face up and talk about a time when they experienced that feeling.
Resources for Helping Children Work Through Grief
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s “Children and Grief” page provides a wealth of information, especially about recognizing signs of anxiety and depression.
The Cove Center for Grieving Children offers an exhaustive list of books, websites, online communities, and other resources. Guiding Your Child Through Grief, by Mary Ann and James P. Emswiler, cofounders of the Cove, is especially helpful for kids who have lost a parent, brother, or sister.
“When Families Grieve” is a series of videos featuring Sesame Street characters, created by Sesame Workshop.