Helping children and teens cope with death, dying
3/21/2022 by Rev. Ana Wilson, M.Div., BCC
In a world with so much trauma, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, adults struggle to find words to express themselves and find normalcy in life. If this is difficult for adults, how can children and teens be expected to find their way?
It is important for adults to help children and teens express themselves by teaching techniques that help them with their grief.
Here are a few ideas to help:
- Be honest with them for their age and level of understanding.
- Use accurate words, such as "dying," "death" and "died." It may sound harsh to use these words, but "losing" a loved one means "we can go find them" to a child. Many might also say, "They went home (heaven, meet their maker, etc.)," and the child thinks they are coming back. Honest words are important.
- It is OK to not have all the answers. It is important to share your beliefs and hopes.
- Give them all the information and give them choices. For example, tell them what to expect at a funeral and ask them questions such as which family member they want to sit with, would they like to see grandpa in the casket or in a picture, and do they want to go to the graveside or wait with family at home.
- Provide activities that might help them, such as coloring, journaling, reading age-appropriate books on grief, finger painting or block-building. Then ask about their creation or what they read.
- Talk about feelings and let them know that all feelings are OK — even anger. Validate their feelings and help them find ways to express them. If they are angry, perhaps suggest screaming into a pillow, exercising, ripping paper, or listening to music and dancing. If they feel sad, perhaps suggest coloring or writing a story, letting them talk, or writing a letter. Other ways to express feelings include hugs; tears; squishing Play-Doh or stress balls; playing with fidget toys; playing with a pet; and sharing stories.
Remember that children face a wide range of emotions and sometimes quickly. Their instantly happy mood, laughter and playful nature does not mean they are being disrespectful or they did not love the person.
If they need extra support, seek help from a counselor or a grief group.
Grief is different for every person, and that is normal. What works for one child or teen may not work for the other.
Mayo Clinic Hospice is offering a Healing Adventures Camp on May 4 for children ages 5–17 who have experienced a death. See this flyer, which is available in English and Spanish, for more information. If you are interested in registering your child or teen, complete the registration form.
The Rev. Ana Wilson, M.Div., BCC, is an ordained minister and board-certified chaplain who works as a bereavement coordinator with Mayo Clinic Hospice. She struggled with her own grief when her grandparents and her mom died within two months. This caused her to run away from grief and prolonged her grieving process. Today, she finds her passion in helping people embrace their grieving and learn to deal with their grief over time.