Grieving is a personal and distinct experience for every individual. You might have heard the statement before that, “Everyone grieves differently.” However, children’s reactions to the death of a loved one can be particularly puzzling to adults. One reason is that their reactions can vary greatly. So, for adults, it helps to expect and be ready for the unexpected.
Adults are sometimes confused if a grieving child does not behave as expected. For example, sometimes, children appear happy, unaffected, and play as usual. And sometimes, they say angry or unkind things about others or the person who died. But it’s important to understand that after the death of a loved one, children will be experiencing deep and powerful emotions, even if it is not at first clear from the things that they say and do.
Children may appear calm and unemotional on the surface because they are working to keep their powerful feelings hidden from others. They may express anger and resentment because the loss has left them feeling anxious and out of control. They may act out and take risks in an effort to master new feelings of personal vulnerability. Or they may regress and act like a younger child in an effort to gain attention and be comforted.
To deal with those myriad potential reactions, a basic course of action for adults is to let grieving children know you care, and be available to listen. To further facilitate a healthy grieving process, education professionals can take the following steps:
- Ask about what they are feeling. Check in regularly and invite the child to talk about what’s going on in his or her life.
- Don’t Assume. Observe and listen. Rather than directly interpreting children’s behaviors, comments, or creative work, ask them to describe what they mean or what they have created and what it means to them.
- Normalize their emotions. Let them know that their strong emotions and other upsetting feelings usually become less powerful over time; that they are common, even for adults; and that talking helps in the grieving process.
To learn more about children’s experiences during grief and for ways to offer support, visit the Coalition to Support Grieving Students website. NASSP is a founding member of the coalition.