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Caring for Surviving Children

How surviving children are affected

One of the most difficult roles for a mother or father after the death and loss of a child is to continue being a parent to the surviving children. Parents must continue to function in the very role they are grieving — an enormous challenge. But the surviving child or children shouldn’t feel that they are alone or have been set aside, as difficult as it may be to find the emotional reserves to support them. Parents have the difficult task of switching roles constantly, from being comforted to being the comforter, at a time when they have little ability to do so. Some parents swing to the other extreme and become extremely overprotective of their child, determined to keep them safe.

Children of all ages process grief differently. To ensure the healthy survival of your family, your children’s needs must be addressed not only by you but other family members who may have greater emotional reserves at this time. Others can help you help your child; you are critical to their healing process, but not the sole provider of comfort.


How children show grief

Each child experiences loss differently. It can depend on their age, maturity and 'connectedness’ with the person or whatever is lost. They can grieve in bursts and seem OK one moment and not the next. Young children especially don’t have the words to talk about their feelings. They may not really know what they feel. Their grief can lead to more demanding behaviour as they try to get closeness, care, information or reassurance from you.

Some of the ways they show grief may be:

  • physical pain such as stomach aches or headaches

  • sleeping problems, bad dreams, wetting the bed  

  • eating too much or too little

  • angry play or playing the same thing over and over

  • being aggressive towards parents, friends or toys

  • temper tantrums

  • being destructive

  • being mean to others

  • being sad and easily upset

  • showing fears

  • not wanting to be left alone

  • acting like a younger child

  • acting more like an adult

  • not being able to concentration for long

  • problems with school work

  • wanting to be left alone or not wanting to talk

  • crying or giggling without obvious reason

  • 'switching off’ and acting as if nothing has happened

  • running away, avoiding school, stealing

  • taking risks, using alcohol or drugs


Each child experiences grief and loss differently. It is important to work out what will best help each child.


Extra stresses for children

There can be extra stress for children when:

  • parents or other adults are so upset they are not available to support children

  • routines are suddenly changed

  • people around them act differently, are upset, crying or not keeping to routines

  • there are new situations to cope with, e.g. funerals, moving house

  • they are asked to be different, e.g. be quiet, be helpful, be good

  • they are not really sure what to think or do.


What parents can do

  • Help children express their feelings

  • Let children know you understand they are having difficult feelings. Provide an environment where they feel safe to express their feelings in whatever way they can.

  • Help them find ways to express their feelings, e.g. through play, writing a letter, a story, a poem, painting, drawing or music.

  • Allow children time to talk, ask questions and share their worries. They might be very confused and need to ask lots of questions. You may have to answer the same questions over and over as children try to make sense of things.

  • If a child finds it hard to talk you could open the way by saying something like ‘Some things are hard to talk about but talking things through can really help.’

  • If you can’t talk about it, find someone you both trust they can talk to, e.g. aunty, uncle, grandparent, teacher or counsellor. If children can’t talk about the loss they may feel that it is not safe to talk about it and continue to have muddled or scary feelings.

  • Share your feelings

  • Share your feelings and tell children you are sad too - it helps them accept their feelings if they know others feel the same.

  • Telling children how you are managing your feelings, even if you are sad, shows them that grief can be coped with. You will help them understand grief is a normal part of life.

  • If you are really distressed it may not be wise to share this too much with children - they need to feel you are in control and can keep them safe.

  • Be honest

  • Tell children what’s happened simply and honestly in ways that suit their age and development. This helps them find ways to cope.

  • If you don’t tell children you may prevent them from dealing with the loss. It may cause problems when they have other losses later in life.

  • Children need to know what’s happened even if they don’t ask.

  • Provide routine and support

  • Stick to family routines as much as you can - doing the same things as usual helps children feel safe. Keep to the same rules about what children are allowed to do.

  • Make extra time to spend with children and teenagers - they will need closeness and comfort.

  • If your family has a spiritual belief this can be a support to children and adults.

  • When the time feels right help your child or teenager to move on and try something new.

  • Involve children in funerals and ceremonies

  • When children or teenagers have lost someone close it can help to have a role in a funeral service or ceremony, or to remember the person in a special way.

  • Sharing emotions and feeling connected with others can be a great support.

  • You could create your own way of remembering the person, e.g. release some balloons or plant a tree.


Let your school or child care centre know what’s happening - they can keep an eye on your child and may offer counselling or other support.


When your child needs extra help

Seek help from a professional that knows about grief if your child or teenager:

  • talks of not wanting to live or being better off dead

  • seems to be preoccupied with death

  • is acting angrily, crying, sad or depressed much of the time

  • is unable to concentrate or is ‘withdrawn’ at school months later

  • doesn’t want to join in or play with other children months later.




Caring For Surviving Children
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