As parents, we want to protect our children from pain. Most adults have had to experience a death or loss at some point in their lives, but young children or teens may be experiencing it for the first time. Although not all loss is due to death, death is often the one parents are the most concerned about. Keep in mind that a child or teen may have significant grief and loss over events or situations such as leaving a school or having a good friend move away. Many of the points made here relate to those types of losses, too.
One of the first and most important ways you can help your child deal with grief and loss is to look at the way you deal with grief and loss. In order to provide the support and reassurance to your child, you need to be open to your own feelings around loss. If you have difficulty accepting loss, if you feel uncomfortable sharing your sadness, anger or confusion, it will make it more difficult to reassure your son or daughter that these feelings are normal and they will pass. The important adults in the child’s life need to encourage and allow a child or teen to talk about their feelings, but not to push. Parents need to give the child permission to talk about it, but not to insist. With an open door policy, the child or teen can feel free to talk if or when they feel most comfortable.
Depending on your children age, their expression and experience of grief and loss will be different. Younger children may be more open and direct with their questions and their feelings. They may ask directly why someone died or if they are going to die, too. Teens, however, may be very closed to the idea of talking about what they are feeling; at least with adults. They are more apt to discuss their feelings with their friends or a teacher or coach.
When death is the cause of the loss, children can experience it and what the loss means to them over the developmental lifespan. For example, a child that loses their mother at four may process through it for a while, only for it to re-emerge again when they are ten and then again when they are 16. Each time the child re-processes the loss, he/she will go through a grieving period and will need support and reassurance that their feelings are normal and they will pass.
As parents, we may not be able to prevent our children and teens from having to experience grief and loss, but we can help them understand it and move through it.