Tips for Helping Anxious Children Cope with Death and Grief

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teddy bearDeath. Most people don’t like to even think about it, never mind getting through the death of someone you love. As noted in our Parents Guide to Death, Grief, and Child Anxiety, there is no “right” way or “wrong” way to grieve, but there are several ways you can make the process easier for both you and your anxious child.

What Parents Can do for Themselves 

Taking care of yourself through the grieving process is the only way you’ll be able to help your anxious child through it. Work through your own emotions as you accept the reality of the loss. Even the simplest actions can have a huge impact on how you move through the situation. Make sure you eat, get enough sleep, take some downtime for yourself and seek outside help if you find you need it.

Prolonged, intense grieving or unhealthy grief reactions (such as substance abuse) will inhibit your ability to provide adequate support,” the National Association of School Psychologists says.

If unhealthy, extensive reactions become the case for any family member, you may benefit from family therapy or other outside support. 

What Parents Can do for Their Anxious Children 

While each child may react a bit differently to a death, several suggestions from the NYU Child Center and HospiceCommunityCare.org hold firm across the board.

Talk About It

Talking about the death leads the list of suggestions, as leaving questions unanswered can be much worse than explaining the reality of what happened. More than one conversation may be in the cards, so it’s best not to treat a single discussion as a done deal. During your conversations with your anxious child, it can help to:

  • Be truthful. Being truthful also means letting your child see signs of your own grief, rather than a stoic face that is trying to hide your emotions. Children are apt to imitate what they see, and your actions can serve as a model for the grieving process.
  • Keep it simple and direct. Skip the euphemisms and, unless prompted, skip extensive details. Provide only the information necessary at the moment. More details can come later once your child has processed the initial news.
  • Encourage questions and responses, but don’t demand them. Everyone grieves at his or her own pace, and your child may not express sorrow right away, or even for some time. Your role is to offer support, an open avenue for communication and answers if your child needs and wants them. Answering questions clears up misconceptions and can keep your anxious child’s imagination and anxiety from running amok.

Encourage Involvement

Letting your anxious child help out with funeral rituals, hospital routines or other age-appropriate tasks can help your child feel involved and provide a bit of closure. Allow your child to attend the funeral if he or she wishes to and also allow visits to the gravesite. The funeral can further help with closure while it offers a chance for your child to see that others are mourning, too. Gravesite visits can provide a way for your child to further process and memorialize the deceased.

Help Your Child Process the Situation

It may take some time for your child to process the death, the concept of dying and the realization that someone they love has died. Encourage private forms of expression, such as journaling, creating artwork or making a scrapbook of mementoes and memories of the person who died.

Eradicate Blame

Ensure your child knows he or she is in no way responsible for the death. This reassurance can help immensely, particularly to eradicate feelings of guilt, fear and worry.

Reinforce Reactions are ‘Normal’

No matter how your anxious child may react, reassure him or her that there is nothing wrong with the way they are feeling or thinking. Confusion, anger, sadness and guilt are all part of the grieving process and those emotions will not last forever at that intensity. HospiceCommunityCare even notes joy may be a “normal” reaction in some cases, and nothing is “wrong” with that, either.

Stay Attuned to Your Child

Being attuned to your child’s emotions and grieving pace can help you anticipate when he or she needs some comfort or additional help getting through the situation. Also keep an eye on your child’s response over the longer-term and, if healing doesn’t seem to be happening, perhaps seek out help from an outside source.

Helping Your Child Understand Other Grieving Children

Sometimes it’s not your own child that is suffering a loss, but one of your child’s classmates or friends. Talking once again leads the list of things you can do to help your own child understand another child’s grieving process. You can supplement that talk with suggestions from the National Association of School Psychologists.

  • Help your child with condolences. Even adults can have a tough time expressing condolences or offering comfort to a grieving friend. Talk about what your child may want to say to the grieving friend and ways he or she can help the friend.
  • Provide concrete ideas for action. Help for the friend can come in the form of assisting with the friend’s chores, setting up a special play date or outing that may provide a much-needed distraction, or just listening to the friend’s sorrows.
  • Explain how your child’s friend’s behavior may change while grieving but that doesn’t change the friendship. Like adults, children may react by withdrawing from their friends or with intense emotions. Let your child know those are reactions we often see with grief and not to think your child did anything to cause it.

Also keep in mind that any death, whether it’s someone close to your child or close to a friend, can stir up fears or painful memories of other losses. Anxious children, especially, may start to fear losing their parents or other family members. Reassurance once again can come to the rescue. Remind your child that everyone is safe and that you’ll do your best to help it stay that way.

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