What about the children and teenagers?
In the past, it was believed that children and young people were unaffected by loss. You would hear people saying things like, “The children are fine, they are out playing in the sand pit” or “Goodness, all my 18-year-old was worried about was if she could still go to her friend’s party after the funeral.”
A lot is now known about the grief of children – right from infancy – and of teens. Yes, they do grieve and, yes, often differently from adults. They can be aware of more than adults give them credit for. Their grief tends to happen mostly in bursts, which can be bewildering for adults to make sense of.
Children and teens instinctively tend to ‘play’ through their grief. By this we mean that they will use toys and things they enjoy, like music, cellphones or computer games, to help them to process and make sense of what has happened.
They need life to be as normal as possible, even after a huge loss. One thing that they loathe is to feel different from their friends. They need contact to continue with their peer group. Just as you get your support from your friends as well as family, they need to get it from their friends too.
They need to feel secure in their own world when a huge change has occurred. Their friends probably won’t talk about the death, but they will be there, and they will support the best way they can. It may mean a teen may want to go to a party or shopping or to the motor racing at what you might consider an inappropriate time. Or younger children might want to keep going over to a friend’s house or have them to stay over all the time. So, if this sort of thing is what your young person needs, be supportive of this if you can. It can really help.
Ways to help children and young people
Be reassuring, attentive and loving.
Stick to routines as much as possible - let them be part of normal life, as this is comforting and reassuring.
Spend time with them - many value a reassuring arm, a hug, a hand being held...
Always tell the truth - let them know key information, using simple explanations.
Use language they understand - repeat key ideas, such as, "It's not your fault that this has happened."
Always answer their questions to the best of your ability. Perhaps use simple drawings or stories to help them understand.
Check every now and then what they know exactly, so they don't mistakenly think something that's not correct or take responsibility when it's not theirs to take - children and teens are especially vulnerable to this.
Acknowledge and understand their own loss and grief.
Don't expect their grief to be expressed in a certain way - give them room to grieve uniquely, like you are.
Show them, by example, the importance of healthy eating, regular meals and getting good rest.
Don't be afraid of tears - yours or theirs. They are healing and part of the territory. Know that some won't cry and that's OK too.
Understand behavoural changes. That doesn't mean putting up with bad behaviour - just understanding where it may be coming from and keeping firm but caring boundary lines.
Watch the use of alcohol or other risk-taking behaviour and help keep them safe.
Let the child's early childhood centre, school, college, training centre or workplace know what is happening in the family as they can be very helpful and supportive too.
Skylight offers resources and information to help support children and teens through grief. See www.skylight.org.nz or phone 0800 299-100.
If you think their reactions are extreme or very prolonged, or if their behaviour or health changes in very concerning ways, don't hesitate to seek professional support from your GP, health nurse or a counsellor.