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How do I help my kid work through grief after a major change or loss of a loved one?

Here are some quick ideas for actions you can take with your child after a passing, or a major change with loved ones like shifting foster care families, divorce, and involvement with the justice system.

Losing a loved one is very difficult no matter our age. You may feel like you are in a fog or in survival mode and unsure how to help your child. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Take care of yourself. It is important to be mindful of your own needs. What do you need to do first for you so you can also support your child in this difficult time? 
  2. Use concrete language. The concept of death is very abstract for small children.
    • While at some ages or developmental phases, you may be able to explain the person died and they will no longer see them anymore. At other ages, you may need to use stories or narratives that help you with the explanation.
    • Answer any questions they have as honestly as possible. 
  3. Allow for feelings. Children often experience the whole spectrum of emotions about death. You can share that you also have lots of feelings and invite them to share their feelings with direct questions, for example:
    • “How are you feeling about Grandpa’s death?”
    • “I’m feeling sad today and I am wondering how you are feeling?“
  4. Build up coping skills. Together with your child come up a list of things that might help when they are feeling upset about the loss. Some examples include:
    • Sitting in a special spot and remembering a special time
    • Deep breathing
    • Art- drawing pictures or coloring 
    • Physical touch- hugs or snuggling together 
    • Doing something that reminds them of the person who died
    • Movement- playing sports, running, walking 
  1. Enlist help.  When you are grieving, it can be hard to complete daily tasks and support your child through their grief.
    • Ask for help from family, friends, and community members.
    • Let your child’s teachers or coaches know what your child is navigating and ask them to help support when feelings come up away from home.
  2. Join a grief support group. Talking with others who are experiencing the grief journey can help you – and your child. Joining a child-centered support group can help your child meet peers who understand and let them know they are not alone. 
  3. Keep memories alive. Maintain a connection to the person who has died by talking about them, celebrating memories and remembering times together or family traditions.
  4. Look for Signs of Distress. Having lots of feelings after the death of someone close is normal and expected; however, sometimes grief can interfere with daily functioning and calls foradditional support. Red flags include:
    • Repeatedly playing scenarios about death
    • Regression in behaviors:
      • Acting younger than they are
      • Increase in bathroom accidents
      • Increase in outbursts or dysregulation
      • Separation anxiety
    • Sleep issues:
      • Nightmares
      • Trouble falling asleep
      • Lots of night wake ups
      • Sleeping more than normal
    • Difficulty in School:
      • Disruptive behaviors or conflicts
      • Difficulty following class or school rules
      • Not able to complete schoolwork
    • Avoiding talking about the person who died 
    • Expressing responsibility for the person’s death

Connect with your child. Try and find simple moments of connection with your child. Connection is a healing super power that feeds into helping restore a sense of safety after loss.

Specific activity to try after the passing of a loved one: Memory Box

Sharing memories together as a family is important for both children and adults in the grieving process. Creating a memory box together can serve as a tangible connection to the person who has died and each other. 

  1. Gather favorite pictures or items that remind the child of the loved one. 
  2. Help them decorate a box, or if age appropriate simply be present while they do it their own way.. 
  3. Write a note or draw a picture for the person who passed. 
  4. On important dates, look at the box together and share favorite memories.
  5. If this is too difficult, for example if the person died in a traumatic way or had a complicated relationship with the child, this activity might be too triggering or upsetting. If that is the case, consult with a therapist for how to process memories.