How children grieve

Kids might be crying one minute and then off playing the next. But that doesn’t mean they are over it. Children grieve in a much different way than adults.

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Everyone—including kids—mourns in their own unique way. While some children will want to talk about death all the time, for instance, others will prefer to process it on their own. But kids tend to experience what counsellors call “grief puddles,” which means they’ll have intense bursts of sadness, and then five minutes later, they’ll want to go play with a friend. “Because of the intensity of the emotions, they can only be there in that place for a little while,” says Candace Ray, director of the Lighthouse for Grieving Children. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not continuing to grieve.”

Kids, just like adults, may react in ways that may seem odd. It’s not uncommon for people to respond to news of a death with anger, guilt, curiosity, an apparent lack of feeling or even laughter. And children will need extra attention and reassurance for months to come—many kids will experience separation anxiety, angry outbursts, nighttime fears and regression to younger behaviours. It can help to maintain routines as much as possible, and encourage kids to express their thoughts and feelings through art and play. They may need recreate or play out what they saw in the hospice or hospital to help them process the information.

Find ways to maintain memories and sense of connection to the person who died. Keep a memory book or photo album handy and keep that person in the conversation. Even small acknowledgements like “This was Grandma’s favourite cake” or “You dad always loved to watch you draw” helps maintain that sense of closeness.

And remember that kids will continue to grieve over the years, and will re-experience intense feelings of grief as they grow. Death isn’t something that you get over. And holidays, anniversaries and birthdays can be especially tough. Sometimes establishing rituals of remembrance can make them a little easier. Here are some rituals that have helped families at the Lighthouse for Grieving Children in Oakville, Ont.

– Prepare your special person’s favourite meal
– Visit the cemetery and leave behind a memento such as a letter, a painted memory stone or their favourite flowers
– Visit a place or do an activity your special person loved
– Buy a gift the deceased person would have liked and donate it to a charity
– Have a moment of silence or a toast, or light a candle in remembrance
– Make a memory chain (strips of coloured paged with special memories written on them and linked together)
– Keep your special person’s picture at the table during a special event
– Write a letter to the person who died

Read more:
How to explain death to a child
18 books to help kids cope with death

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