The death of someone close during childhood can haunt a child throughout their lives. However, it doesn't have to if children are allowed to go through the grieving process in their own time and in their own way. "Children are naturally resilient," says Katherine Supiano, PhD, LCSW, FT, director of Caring Connections: A Hope and Comfort in Grief Program at the University Of Utah College Of Nursing. "If they are given an opportunity to express their feelings and given support from adults they not only do well with their grief and grow up to be extremely helpful adults."
Supporting a child through the grief process starts with being honest with them about what has happened. No, they don't need to know every gory detail of a car accident or an illness, but they need to be given the facts in plain simple language. "Never tell a child someone just 'went to sleep,'" says Supiano. "That could lead to a child having sleep issues later because they equate going to sleep with dying."
Simple is often best when it comes to the spiritual aspects of death as well. Adults may believe they are being comforting when they tell grieving children about a master plan, or that their loved one is in a better place, but such words may fall on deaf ears - or have another impact. "In the face of raw new grief those words don't feel true," says Supiano. "They can end up being wounding and may drive people from a faith community."
Instead of focusing on the spiritual when supporting a child through grief adults should focus on more basic needs. "Think about physical needs: is the child sleeping, are they eating, are they comfortable," says Supiano. "Then look at the emotional and cognitive needs: do they need a hug, are you listening to them, are you answering their questions. Let the spiritual comfort be wrapped around the practical."
It is also important to know when outside help is needed. There are times when family members experiencing their own grief cannot offer support to a child. There are services that can help in these situations. "Caring Connections can put you in touch with agencies and organizations that can help," says Supiano. "If we can't help we will help you find someone who can."
A child who does not receive support in the face of grief may deal with lasting impacts. They cannot be expected to heal on a certain timeline, or to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. "When people are denied that freedom to grieve openly and with support the grief process can become thwarted," says Supiano. "They may learn to mask their feelings and put on a veneer. Or they may develop coping mechanisms that are self-destructive."
Unsupported grief at a young age could also lead to depression or anxiety. This could be exacerbated in cases where a family member dies suddenly and without warning. "You have a young person who suddenly has an ill-defined awareness that the world is a dangerous place," says Supiano. "That's gasoline on the fire of anxiety."
There is no right way to go through grief. In facing loss everyone, including children, must find what works for them. However, in every case, the presence of support is what helps the process go smoothly. "It is especially important for children as they are still learning their emotional landscapes," says Supiano. "Adults who support them and give good examples can have a powerful impact."