Helping children cope with change, loss and grief
It can be hard for anyone to face up to change or loss and deal with it effectively.
Parents and adult family members need to understand that for a child or young person it can be particularly hard.
The child or young person may find it impossible to know where to start. Sometimes it may even seem easier simply to try and pretend that nothing has happened and get on with their life by blocking things out. This is not healthy however and can result in long-term problems. The most important thing you can do for your child or young person is to support and care for them and make sure they have someone to talk to. That person needs to be someone they can trust and respect. It may be a parent, grandparent or other family member, or a trained grief counsellor.
What are change, loss and grief?
Change or loss are events which happen to all of us. Grief is our reaction to such an event and each of us will react differently.
There are many situations where change or loss occurs. Some of the most common are: family break-up, suicide, illness, disability, broken friendships, being a victim of crime, bullying, sexual or physical abuse, death of a pet, new family situations, becoming pregnant, addictions, miscarriage, loss of a home or country, loss of a job, privacy, or dignity, loss of hope, faith, or love, death of a friend or relative.
Grief is an individual's reaction to change or loss - do remember that no two people will necessarily react in the same way to the same change or loss. Grief reactions can be physical, emotional, spiritual, or social.
Common grief reactions are:
- extreme sadness
- relief that the situation has come to an end
- lack of energy, numbness
- changes in behaviour at home, and/or school
- hallucinations and dreams
- sleep and appetite disturbances
- social withdrawal
- avoiding reminders of the deceased
- treasuring objects that belonged to the deceased.
But grief is more than any one feeling. In the struggle to regain a full, regular life after change or loss, many feelings can be experienced. An individual's grief reaction is made up of all these different feelings. It is vital to remind your child or teenager to think of grief as an ongoing process, rather than as a one-off event.
The chronically ill child or teenager
Children with chronic illnesses may grieve for lost friends, freedom to do things and having to cope with separation from their family during hospitalisation. The situation can be further complicated for parents if they themselves suffer feelings of guilt, frustration, anger and exhaustion.
Communication between the family, the child or young person's health workers and those who educate and care for the child or young person is very important.
When a sibling dies
Parents and caregivers may feel helpless and overwhelmed when a child dies. It is quite common for the remaining siblings to be afraid that they, too, are going to die. Consequently, they will need particular attention and reassurance. Try to reassure the child or young person by being patient and loving.
Deciding whether a child or young person should attend funerals, memorial services or tangi is not always easy. Depending on the child's age, discuss the decision with them. Explain in advance what the funeral, memorial service or tangi is about, what will happen and what they will see.
If the child or young person wishes to view the body (if it is in an open coffin) then this should be done with thoughtful care. In particular, significant adults known and trusted by the child or young person need to ensure they are available for the child or young person and supporting them in their emotional needs.
Children with special needs
Children with special needs will sense the change caused by loss and respond with emotions and tears like everyone else. Providing them with love, support and consistency with routines will help. Consider any arrangements that need to be made to enable children with special physical needs to view the body (if it is an open coffin), attend the service and cremation or burial if they wish to.
- How to handle grief situations
- Breaking the news
- Parenting grieving children - tips
- A charter for bereaved children and young people
- Barnardos - child-centred counselling is provided for families affected by grief and bereavement, family separations, reconstitutions and other life crises.
- Barnardos Parent Helpline - a nationwide service that gives callers the opportunity to talk to a sympathetic listener about their parenting issues or wider family/whÄnau problems. Call: 0800 4 PARENT (0800 472 7368)
- Skylight - is dedicated to helping children and young people and those caring for them, to deal with change, loss and grief in their lives. Skylight
- offers resources and information, training and education, counselling and support. They can also be contacted by calling 0800 229 100
- Victim Support - provides 24-hour emotional support, personal advocacy and information to all people affected by crime and trauma throughout New Zealand. They can also be contacted by calling: 0800 842 846
- Hospice New Zealand - Hospice or palliative care is a special type of care for people whose illness may no longer be curable. Hospice offers information, publications, family support and bereavement services
- Relationship Services Whakawhanaungatanga - provides counselling, information, and education services throughout the country. They can also be contacted by calling: 0800 735
- National Association for Loss and Grief (NALAG) - a voluntary, non-profit organisation which focuses on issues related to loss and grief. This organisation is for professionals and those interested in this topic. NALAG branches extend throughout New Zealand.
- Urge/Whakamanawa - is a youth (health) and information service designed to assist young people to find useful information or resources to help them, regarding a variety of youth-related topics, including getting through tough times.
- Funeral Link - information relating to grieving children and how to support them through bereavement.
- Miscarriage Support - for families affected by miscarriage.
- Canteen - gives support to young cancer patients, their families and friends.
- Winston's Wish - A UK charity offering practical support and guidance to families, professionals, and to anyone concerned about a grieving child.
- Counseling for Loss and Life Changes Inc. - A US site of information compiled to help people who are grieving the loss of loved ones.
- Kara - Kara is a San Francisco organisation dedicated to providing compassionate support to those who are grieving a death or facing a life-threatening illness. Its website carries useful articles, videos and radio links.