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Help children cope with loss
Posted: July 1, 2009
Last Updated: July 1, 2009

All children will confront death sometime in their formative years. Whether it is the death of a family pet or the more significant and life-altering loss of a beloved grandparent, the experience can have a profound impact on the child’s life. Like adults, children express loss by grieving, though depending on a child’s age the grief may not be demonstrated in the same manner as adults. Preschoolers tend to see death as temporary. As children reach between five and nine years old, they begin to experience grief more like adults and understand the permanency of the loss.

"Helping a child cope with loss is perhaps one of the most important roles an adult can play. In effect, you are helping that child develop skills that can last a lifetime,” says Marsha Bowman, a counselor at Border Area Mental Health Services who has worked with children for years.

The signs of grief in children are very much the same as in adults with sadness, anger, denial, shock and confusion being widely experienced. Some responses children have to loss are very different then adults, but still normal, parents should be aware of and able to respond. Because younger children have difficulty understanding the permanency of death, they may ask excessive questions about the deceased such as “When are they coming back?” or other comments that might seem strange to adults, but it is the child’s way of processing and understanding the loss. Adults should respond to these repetitive questions about death simply and honestly. Bowman suggests offering details that they can absorb and not overloading them with information.

Avoid such statements of the deceased “went to sleep” or “passed on.” Children have concrete thinking and such statements can cause fear that if they go to sleep, they might not wake up or could ‘pass on’ at any moment. Instead remain honest that death is a part of life and offer the child comfort and understanding for their fears.

Some children might invent games about dying or make repeated statements about wanting to join the deceased. Such incidents are akin to an adult voicing the longing for the return of a loved one, or regret at the loss in their life the death represents. Children don’t have these coping mechanisms in place yet, and might be unaware of how to express their feelings of grief. Give children a chance to talk about their fears and validate their feelings. Adults can help this process by offering simple expressions of sorrow and take time to listen to the child’s concerns.

Allow the child to grieve as part of the family. Offer the child choices in how to memorial the deceased and ways to express their feelings about death, just as you would adults. Try to keep regular routines as much as possible; though the child is likely to grieve over the loss to the family and the changed behavior, for example the ending of weekend visits to grandma’s house after her death. 

Be aware of a child’s responses to loss and their grief process. If the child shows signs of depression or behavioral changes that affect their quality of life consider speak to a counselor at Border Area Mental Health Services. To reach Border Area Mental Health Services in Grant and Hidalgo Counties, call 388-4412; in Catron County, call 533-6649 for referral; in Luna County, call 546-2174.  For CRISIS, call 538-3488 or outside Silver City, call 1-800-426-0997.

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© 2008 by Border Area Mental Health Services and Putting the Web to Work. Front-page photo copyright by Bob Pelham, Pinos Altos Cabins, and used by permission. All rights reserved. For the privacy and comfort of our clients and staff, the photographs used in this site are representative and do not show specific individuals associated with BAMHS.