Supporting school age children in grief - 5 to 12 years
My children lost their Grandpa last year. My wonderful father in law died rather unexpectedly, and his death left us all in a state of grief and disbelief. I remember thinking that I wished I had known the last time I had seen him was going to be the last time. My kids were at school when I got the call telling me what had happened, and between my own shock and sadness, I spent a large part of that day trying to figure out how I was going to tell them that their beloved Grandpa had died. I knew that it is best for children hear hard news from a trusted adult like a parent, and I knew the words and language that I was 'supposed' to use to explain the death to them, but nonetheless, I found myself perseverating on the 'right way' to do it. I couldn't stop worrying that I would say or do something 'wrong' that would have some sort of everlasting effect on their well being. Looking back, I think that what I was feeling, on top of my own grief, was simply that I didn't want them to feel sad and I hated being the one to deliver the news.
We drove home from school that day and instantly my oldest son knew something was up. Kids are so intuitive! I'd had it all planned out in my head that we would come home and make a snack and cuddle up on the couch together as I delivered the news, but my kids were having none of that. They knew something was up and they wanted answers immediately. I knew it was important that I be truthful and honest with them, and they were already sensing that something bad had happened. So, I mustered up my courage and told them simply that Grandpa had had a heart attack in the morning while they were at school. He was taken to the hospital where the doctors did everything that they could to help him, but sadly, he had died. His heart had stopped beating and his body had stopped breathing. There was silence for a few seconds and then came the questions. My youngest asked "Does Dad know about this?" I explained to them that their dad had gone to the hospital where Grandpa died to say goodbye to him. My youngest asked "How did he say goodbye if he was dead?" My oldest asked "Did Dad cry?", "Did you cry?"I appreciated that they were asking questions and was also a bit taken aback at their directness. I told them yes, both dad and I had cried and they might see us cry some more, but that that was okay because it is normal and good to cry when we feel sad, and Grandpa dying was a very sad thing. More questions were asked and we chatted a bit more before they were suddenly finished and began to play. I could tell they had had enough and did not want to talk about Grandpa dying any more. I took their lead and let them do as they pleased. At one point, my youngest came to me in the kitchen and asked who was going to take them to McDonald's now every weekend, as his Grandpa had done religiously for years. I understood that this was him already processing and mourning the traditions that involved his grandpa that were now gone.
We went through the next few days and weeks in a sort of fog. I watched my kids grieve in small ways intermixed with moments of happiness and sadness. It was clear to me that they were not sitting in the sadness like the adults around them were. When there were intense moments of sadness, we drew pictures and wrote down memories that we had about Grandpa. At one point my oldest said "I don't have anything to remember him by," and so we talked about ways in which we could remember him. They both chose to have something tangible of Grandpas that they could keep, and look at whenever they wanted; his old baseball gloves now sit in a place of honour on a shelf in their room.
This was my children's first big loss, as far as death goes, and still, a year later, they are processing what happened, and are missing their Grandpa. I make a point to talk about him frequently to show my children that even though Grandpa has died, he is important and loved, and that their feelings and memories of him will be with them forever.
How school-aged children understand death
School-aged children are beginning to understand the concept of death and its permanency. Children 5-9 years old may struggle with understanding this concept consistently, while children 9-12 years old begin to have an understanding of death as permanent and irreversible.
Common responses to grief in school-age children
According to the Children's Grief Foundation, 1 in 5 children will experience the death of someone close to them by age 18. Even though grief and loss is a common experience for many, we often feel at a loss as to what to do for a child who is grieving. Typically we send a card or flowers to a friend or family member who has gone through a loss, but children are often the “forgotten mourners.”
Common responses to grief and loss at this age include intense fears and worries, inability to focus, feeling less safe and secure, withdrawal from activities, and questions that will continue over time. Children's grief reactions may also show up as physical complaints such as stomachaches, sore throat, headaches, and others. Children generally grieve in chunks, meaning they do not sit in one emotion for long periods of time. They can move between being in deep sadness and playing happily. It is important for caregivers to follow their lead. Be present with them when they are feeling sad or vulnerable, and respect their need for space and for other positive feelings as well. Grieving is complex, and may come and go in waves.
Children may want be included in funeral preparations or celebrations. However, younger children may also need an adult to help them to take a break during a funeral or other event when they need it. Older school aged children may appear to act adult-like in their response, but will oscillate between younger emotional reactions as well.
How to respond to children's grief
Children are learning how to grieve. It is important that they know that grief can cause a wide range of feelings and that all feelings are allowed and are ok. If you are a parent or family member who is also grieving, don't hide your grief responses from the child. Acknowledge your own grief and grief responses, as this is how children learn that expressing emotions is normal and expected. Talking about your own feelings helps kids to be aware of and comfortable talking about their own. During a highly emotional time, children need two things in order to feel safe:
1. Clear information so that they are able to form an understanding about what is happening; and
2. Connection with a parent or other adult.
Children require clear and honest information when it comes to death and dying. Avoid using euphemisms such as "they have gone to a better place" that might lead to misunderstanding or confusion. Try your best to give straightforward and truthful answers to their questions. They might wonder about where the body goes after death, if there is life after death, and how will life go on without the person who has died. These questions may be difficult to answer, especially if you are also grieving the loss. Honest answers will build trust and safety. It is also okay to say that you don't know the answer! Some things in life are mysteries, and it is okay to say that as well. To support their grief, children benefit from time and attention from supportive adults. It can help to identify the supportive adults in their lives that the child can talk to about their feelings and experiences, such as other family members, a friend's parent, teacher, or school counsellor.
Creative outlets such as art and journaling and expressive outlets such as play and physical activity can help with processing the wide range of feelings and emotions children experience. School age children are not always able or willing to verbally express their feelings, and so creative outlets can provide children with a means to express their feelings safely and indirectly.
Provide consistent routines when possible. Knowing what to expect and having control over choices that concern them will help them to feel safe and included.
Sometimes adults are worried about talking about the loss or about the person who died with a child who is grieving. But don't let that fear stop you! Children want to know that their family member is important and loved, and that the loss that the child is feeling is real. Talk about the person who died. Share positive stories and favourite memories, and make sure to say their name. Rituals, or memorials can provide a space for remembering and for honouring loss, which is important to children. They can be involved in coming up with rituals that are meaningful to them. They may feel comforted having a tangible way of remembering their loved one. Remembering is an important part of grieving and of healing.
With Love School Aged Grief Gifts
Our gift boxes for school aged children reflect their need for expressive activities and memory-keeping. Designed for a variety of different losses, the books that are included in each box represent children's real and concrete experiences of loss. One Wave at a Time by Holly Thompson specifically addresses the death of a parent, and the many feelings that accompany deep grief. A sand art activity provides a tangible and soothing way to express and represent these feelings. The Memory Box by Joanna Rowland is suitable for all types of losses and addresses a child's need to honour a person or pet who has died and the memories that they have shared. The box itself can be painted and decorated, and is meant to hold photos and important mementos. Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higgenbotham explores a child's experience of losing a grandparent, and acknowledges the witnessing of a parent's grief, as well as the many well-meaning yet misguided condolences that are offered to him. The child finds his own way of honouring his grandparent by sharing in the things that they enjoyed - including loving himself. A chipboard journal and collage pack are included for a child to honour and represent their own memories of their loved one. Additionally, each box includes a cotton bag with two colourful felted hearts that act as a touchstone during moments of grief. They can be carried in a pocket or put under a pillow to remember the love that they will always share with the one who has died.
References and Resources
The Dougy Center
Canadian Virtual Hospice
Sesame Street’s Grief Series
National Alliance for Grieving Children
Children and Youth Grief Network
Books to help support children with grief
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup
My Yellow Balloon by Tiffany Papageorge
My Forever Guardian: Healing with friends from the loss of a loved one by Kristina Jones
Ida Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso
My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon by Angie Lucas
What Happens When a Loved One Dies? Our First Talk About Death by Dr. Jillian Roberts
Everett Anderson's Goodbye by Lucille Clifton
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
Fred and Red Say Goodbye by Austin Schlichtman
Always Remember by Cece Meng
I Have a Question about Death: Clear Answers for All Kids, including Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other Special Needs by Arlen Grad Gaines and Meredith Englander Polsky