Kids need help understanding death and grief in tangible, culturally relevant ways. If this is their first experience of loss, they may not understand what death is like or the emotional ramifications of grief. Some may feel a deep sadness, others may be confused, and others may brush it off and run out to play. Allow your child to process it in whatever way is best for them, free of parental expectations, and continue to check in with them as you see fit. Some benefit from making crafts or writing letters to the person who passed, others may need extra physical comfort for their big emotions, and others may genuinely not be phased given their stage of development.
If you are unsure if your child is coping with loss in a healthy way, look out for changes in their routine. Are they eating, sleeping, toileting, and playing in a typical manner? Are their behaviors at school and home consistent with how they were before the loss? Some kids may have changes in one or more of these areas, which is not surprising for such a major change. They may be noticing their parents’ grief, or they may have a change in schedule due to a funeral, travel, or family coming into town. When possible, give your kids time to engage and talk about the loss, normalize, and validate their feelings, and give them extra grace for bigger behaviors that may not normally be allowed. If these behaviors or changes to eating and sleeping routines continue or seem concerning, feel free to reach out for professional support.
Teens need to know that whatever they are feeling is normal. It is not uncommon for teens to show more irritable, anger-based emotions as opposed to sadness due to their stage of development. They are at an age when they are gaining independence both physically and emotionally, so they may not want to willingly engage with their family while they are emotional processing the loss. Connect with your teen using their interests; they may like basketball, going for a drive, going on a fast-food run, or playing a game. Connection and compassion go a long way with teens who are struggling but not yet desiring to verbally process what’s going on.
If your teen does want to talk and engage with family, that’s wonderful! They may benefit from seeing parents be honest with their own grief process, learning coping skills such as journaling or drawing, and engage in self care such as going on a walk together. Sometimes grief processing can involve discussing memories, and other times it can simply involve showing your child how to walk through life when it feels so painful and unfair. No grief process is the same, and no teenager is the same, so feel free to do what feels natural for your family. Again, if you are concerned about your teen processing grief and potentially being stuck, depressed, or isolated, feel free to seek professional help for this challenging season.
Blog written by Sarah Carter, Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselor #6982, supervised by Lisa Lewis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #112889