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Helping Grieving & Distressed Children:

Talking with Them About Death and World Violence

James R. Harris, Jr., Ph.D.  

This article is reprinted with the permission of the author, James Harris, Jr. author of: Respecting Residential Work with Children, 2003 & Promoting Healthy Childhood Development Today, 2007.


As adults we have learned that we will be confronted by, and have to learn to cope with, losses (both natural and unnatural). In the world today we struggle to make sense of such losses and to protect youth from the harsh reality of life in America, and the world beyond. It is natural for caretakers to want to protect their children. However, with daily exposure to violence in the school setting and with news accounts of acts of terrorism, in addition to natural losses such as the death of a family member or friend, parental discord and divorce, or serious illness of a caretaker, children will inevitably experience grief in the lives.

Whether a child is confronted by their death of a grandparent; whether a child has seen a friend involved in an accident; or whether a child has witnessed a news report of a catastrophic event, all children go through stages of grief when they experience a loss in their life. These stages include denial/shock, panic, anger, blame, sadness, guilt, and acceptance. As a consequence, caretakers should realize that it can take a child six months to a year, or longer to grieve.

This article will review two specific areas in helping grieving children: how to talk with children about death, and how to talk with them about national and world violence.

How to Talk with Children about Death

For many children the death of a family member or friend is a new experience and the child may find the time to be confusing or frightening, shrouded in their uncertainty over what to expect. Their responses will vary based on age, past experiences with such a loss, and the situations surrounding a death. Younger children (especially) may not know what death means, and may become confused or frightened by the reaction of other family members.

Preschoolers may not believe death is a permanent condition, especially when they have seen cartoon characters that “die” and then come back to life again. Typically, children ages 8-10 (and perhaps a bit younger) begin to experience grief in much the same way that adults do. However, it is typical for a child in this age group to believe that death will not come to them or anyone they know. As youth become older they begin to understand about the meaning of death. However, no matter the age of a child, when a caretaker loses a loved one, and they are so affected by grief that they cannot provide compassionate care to the youngster, they add to the child’s shock and confusion. After all, children look to their parents or caretakers for answers and support following the death of a loved one.

Talking with children about grief, death, and serious illness can be an intimidating task for caretakers. And, while adults may not have all the answers to the questions a child may have about death, they can help them through the grieving process. The following list, adapted from the work of Dyer (2002), includes some of the ways that adults can talk to children grieving a loss:

  • Using actual terms to explain death. If an adult tells a child “He’s just sleeping” they may not understand that this means the person has died.
  • Explaining the family’s religious beliefs about death in simple language. Still, caretakers should expect that the child may be able to repeat what has been said yet not fully understand the meaning.
  • Allowing the child the chance to talk about their fear of death.
  • Listening to the child to find out what they know or don’t know about what has happened.
  • Letting the child know that you will be available and ready to talk with them whenever they have a question.
  • Discussing with the older child that death is permanent and sad. Caretakers can also acknowledge and share the grieving process.
  • Talking to the child calmly. For this, adults need to keep their emotions in check. If a caretaker is too upset they may want to ask another family member or friend to help with this.
  • Being very supportive. In addition to calmly discussing the incident in concrete terms, caretakers should also provide physical reassurance through hugging, cuddling and touching.

  • Some other ways that caretakers can help grieving children include:

  • Permitting the child to attend the funeral if they choose to do so. However, a child should never be forced to attend.
  • Letting the child talk about the decease without pushing them to express their feelings.
  • Giving the child alternatives for expressing their grief. This list might include drawing pictures, and/or writing letters, stories or poetry.

  • Parents and caretakers must be patient and recognize that it may take a child a long time to recover from their loss. In addition, grief may reoccur throughout a youth’s formative years and adolescence. The anniversary of a death, the departed person’s birthday, or holiday celebration without the loved one may cause grief to return. In these instances, adults should be ready to talk with their child. Moreover, children may mourn the traditions and practices that had been in place before the death (Sunday dinner at Grandma’s). Therefore, it can be beneficial to resume as close to a regular routine as possible, including starting new traditions (Sunday dinners at a local restaurant or another family member’s home).

    How to Talk with Children about World Violence

    Unfortunately, the world we live in does not have a shortage of trauma-producing events. This includes school shootings, sex offender abductions and murder of children, and acts of terrorism. For these reasons caretakers should be cautious of a youngster’s media exposure. Adults may have to shield what their child views on television or, at the very least, be prepared to watch with them.

    According to Dyer (2002), when a child has been exposed to an incident of violence, regardless of their age, the caretaker can process with the youngster in some of the following ways:

  • Reassuring the child that things will return to normal. Even if the adult is feeling apprehensive they should convey the message that, “The incident is over. We’ll do everything possible to stay safe.”
  • Reaffirming the future, talking in hopeful terms about future events. Such an outlook can help the child rebuild trust and faith in their own future and the world.
  • Relating the national tragedies occurred in the past and had been overcome. Discuss events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Columbia Space Shuttle explosion, etc., explaining that the United States has overcome theses tragedies in the past and will do the same with the current calamity.

  • In all instances of world disasters, whether they be natural or violent, caretakers should reiterate messages of faith, conveying aspirations for a brighter tomorrow. Talking with youngsters about how the world came together to help those affected by the Tsunami tragedy, how Americans stood in unison after 9-1-1, or how new practices were put into place after the Columbine school shootings can offer children potential hope that the current event will be survived, all will heal, and that we will become even stronger. For, in spite of everything, youngsters look to their parents and caretakers to learn how they should respond – now and in the future.

    Discussing death and world violence are never easy. Still, one of the great responsibilities that an adult caretaker has (whether they be parent or foster parent; providing kinship or congregate care) is to help their children make sense of those things that are causing them trauma and/or confusion. By helping children sort through their feelings of grief and distress adults are promoting in youth the capacity to understand, mourn, and move forward in their lives. In a world that provides for much trial and tribulation, this may be one of the most indispensable lessons we can impart.

    Reference

    Dyer, K. (2002). Journey of Hearts: From Idea to Reality. University of Victoria, School of Health Sciences. (On-line). Available: http://www.itch.uvic.ca/itch2000.htm (2005, April 28).


    Portions of this article are from Promoting Healthy Childhood Development Today (2007) by James R. Harris, Jr.



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