Children experience numerous losses throughout their lifetime. Often, people assume that children only experience grief when a loved one dies. However, we know that children grieve many other losses including a best friend moving away, deployment of a caregiver, incarceration of a loved one, divorce, and changing schools. Helping children process grief is important for their mental health.
Grief is the response to a change that the child did not ask for and often includes emotional, physical, social and behavioral symptoms. Non-death related grief can sometimes be harder for children to cope with as their grief is not always recognized or understood.
Some children may be hesitant to talk about their loss or their emotions, especially if they are feeling misunderstood. You can help children cope with their feelings by reminding them that loss is hard and it’s OK to feel strong emotions when something difficult or unexpected happens.
When your child experiences a non-death related loss:
Validate and normalize their feelings
Many children feel like others may not understand the impact of non-death related losses on their lives. Acknowledge their loss and how their situation has changed. Let them know that it is normal to experience big feelings and that you are a safe space to share and process their emotions. Perhaps, share with your child a time you grieved a loss in your life that was not related to a loved one dying. Remind them there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that grief does not have a timeline. A child’s emotions will come and go as they grieve these losses. These tips are especially important for non-death related grief as children may bury their feelings if they do not feel their emotions or coping challenges are typical. Download our conversation starters below on best ways to start these difficult conversations.
Do not compare losses
All losses are different. Loss is not a competition, and a child does not have to prove their grief to anyone. Changing schools can be just as challenging to cope with as the death of a grandparent.
Resist the urge to problem-solve
As caregivers, it is normal to want to take away your child’s pain by trying to fix the problem (“You will make new friends at your new school,” or “At least dad’s deployment was delayed a few months, and you were able to get extra time with him”). Although well-intentioned, these comments and problem-solving strategies can sometimes cause more hurt for your child. Remember, you cannot fix a child’s grief. Your presence, love, and willingness to listen are the best supports you can offer a child who is grieving.
Tell the truth
Be open and honest with your child. Try to avoid promising something that is not guaranteed as this can cause your child to lose trust in you. It is OK to say that you do not have all the answers.
Work with their support system
Consider sharing information regarding the child’s loss with their teacher or coach to provide a context for potential changes to their mood or behavior. Discuss potential short-term accommodations to help support the child in these settings (e.g., opportunities to take a break at school when feeling a big emotion, alternative activities for things that remind child of loss). Talk with your child about what they are comfortable with being shared. Others may be able to provide additional support.
Share memories, create new rituals and find ways to feel connected
Coming up with ongoing ways to openly talk about who or what is missed is an important part of grief. This may include sharing their favorite memories, looking at pictures of old neighborhood/school, eating favorite meal of parent or friend who no longer lives close, and doing activities that reminds them of the person they are missing.
When Should I Be Concerned?
It is normal for children to experience a range of emotional (e.g., sadness, guilt, worry, anger), physical (e.g., stomachaches, headaches), behavioral (e.g., acting out), and cognitive (e.g., forgetfulness, difficulties paying attention) symptoms while coping with grief.
If your child’s grief is significantly impacting their daily functioning, such as difficulties getting out of bed, missing school, no longer enjoying preferred activities or withdrawal from loved ones), it is important to seek additional support. Contact your child’s pediatrician or a mental health therapist.