Loss and grief

Losing someone or something we’re close to can be a painful experience at any age. It can sometimes feel like life without that person or thing is impossible, and grieving takes time.

And while we can’t always control what happens to our families and the challenges we face, there are lots of positive things that you can do to help kids cope with loss, change, grief and stress.

Children need lots of reassurance and support from caring adults to help them come to terms with what has happened. While grief is a normal reaction to loss, feelings of anxiety or sadness may be intense and long-lasting – especially following the death of a close family member, or when families are dealing with traumatic circumstances.

Other losses may include:

  • the death of a family member, friend or pet
  • separation of parents and family break-up
  • change of schools or moving house
  • loss of a friendship
  • relocating to a new community, city or country
  • having a disability or medical condition
  • the end of a young person’s relationship
  • having a family member in hospital for a long time.

Reactions and behaviour

Common grief reactions can include:

  • crying
  • being anxious
  • having bad dreams
  • clinging to parents or guardians
  • anger
  • irritability
  • unsettled
  • losing motivation for school and other activities.

Sometimes kids show their distress by behaving in ways you would expect from a younger child. For example, they might start wetting the bed at night, sucking their thumb, or using baby talk.

Remember that children might not always be able to articulate their emotions. By observing their behaviour and gently inquiring about it, you can often get a clearer picture of how they’re feeling.

Helping children deal with loss and grief

Knowing what to say and helping kids come to terms with loss and grief can be difficult, especially if you’re also dealing with the loss and all the feelings that go with it. When grief is very intense, or when it lasts a long time, it can interfere with children’s ability to manage everyday life. It may also lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. 

If you’re concerned that your child or young person isn’t coping, they might need some additional support from a health professional.

Acknowledge children’s feelings

  • Reinforce that feeling sad is normal when you lose someone or something you care about – it’s OK to be upset.
  • Let them talk about feelings and ask questions.
  • If they don’t want to talk about it they might want to write a journal, put notes on their phone, or write a note or draw a picture saying ‘goodbye’ if someone close to them has died.
  • Support them if they cry or need some time alone – let them know you’re there if they need you.

Talk about what’s going on

  • Explain what has happened in plain language that children can understand. Knowing what has happened helps children find ways to cope with the situation. 
  • Children are sensitive to your moods and reactions. Telling them how you feel and how you’re managing your emotions can help kids make sense of their own feelings.
  • It’s important to be real with children, but try not to burden them with your emotional needs. By showing children that you can cope with grief, even though you’re sad, you can help them understand that grief is a normal part of life.

Maintain routines

  • Losses often go hand in hand with big life changes. Maintaining regular routines, such as bedtimes and mealtimes, helps to provide a sense of stability and security. Similarly, children are reassured by knowing that a responsible adult is taking care of them and looking after their needs.
  • If you’ve moved, you can ease the transition by helping kids keep in regular contact with their old friends, get involved in their new community and create some space in their new home that makes them feel comfortable straight away. 

Provide reassurance

  • Children often worry that the bad things they experience will happen again or get worse. For example, in a family breakup, when one parent or carer leaves the family, children often become anxious that the remaining parent or carer will also leave them. Similar worries are common when someone dies or is hospitalised.
  • Often these kinds of fears are expressed through behaviour rather than words – kids might become clingy, or become fearful about sleeping by themselves.
  • Showing you understand your children’s fears and providing reassurance and support is important for helping them cope.
  • Making sure that children know what to do and who else they can seek help from if you’re ever unavailable or unwell is also really important – particularly when chronic illness or stress may affect your capacity to provide support.

Build children’s strengths

  • As kids start develop coping skills, make sure you give them plenty of encouragement and positive feedback. This helps them build confidence in their ability to manage difficult situations.
  • Acknowledging and appreciating the help and support that children give you during stressful times also helps to build their strengths.
  • At the same time, it’s important to give kids permission to not always have to be strong. Children who take on significant caring roles often hide their vulnerabilities. Trying to avoid burdening parents and guardians can cause additional hardship for these children, who need to know that support is available to them as well.

Get your own support

  • Sometimes your own grief will make it difficult for you to support your child. It can be helpful to seek support, whether from friends, family or a health professional.

Let the school know

  • School staff can provide more effective support at school when they understand some of the pressures kids may be facing in other parts of their lives.
  • It is often very reassuring for children as well as for parents and guardians to know that teachers or other school staff understand their difficulties and are ready to provide support.
  • Staff at your child’s school may also be able to provide you with support and advice, or help you find support services.

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