Traumatic Grief in Children: How to help a child cope with the loss of a loved one
The death of a loved one can be a devastating experience for children. Children who experience traumatic grief often have a difficult time coping with everyday life after the death of a loved one. They may be unable to attend school, have trouble sleeping and become socially isolated. Studies on child development also found that children who go through traumatic grief in their childhood display symptoms of depression, anxiety, and uncontrolled anger in their adulthood.
Trauma is a serious negative experience, and when left unaddressed, trauma, later on, manifests in the child’s teenage and adulthood years. Childhood trauma is the main contributor to a number of social, emotional, and cognitive deficits that increase the risk of unhealthy self-destructive behaviours. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) may have long-lasting effects on children, and they can even manifest in adulthood.
Traumatic grief is one of the worst kinds of trauma that the child can experience in their childhood. This kind of trauma results from the death of a loved one, and it commonly happens when the death is sudden (whether the result of violence, accident, or sudden illness). Traumatic grief is characterised by the child’s inability to deal with day-to-day challenges or even recall a deceased loved one outside of the context of their passing.
Childhood trauma, especially traumatic grief can cause a variety of mental disorders, including anxiety and PTSD. It can also alter the way the brain works and its structure neurologically. Trauma also has some serious health impacts such as hypertension and autoimmune disorders. A study conducted by Stefania Tognin and Maria Calem found that children who experience trauma in their childhood are at higher risk of psychosis.
What you can do to help
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is hard for anyone. You can only imagine how hard it would be for children who don’t even fully understand their emotions yet. When a loved one dies, people grieve in different ways. However, it can be extra hard for the child because they don’t fully understand the situation much more than the different emotions that they feel.
Parents, relatives, and guardians of the child play a crucial role in helping the child cope with the loss of a loved one. It’s important that you guide the child throughout his/her grieving process while you also look out for signs of traumatic grief. Unprocessed grief can lead to childhood trauma, and it affects the child throughout their life. It should never be left unresolved.
Here are some practical tips on how to help a child dealing with the loss of a loved one:
Talk about death with the child
Some children, especially the younger ones, don’t even understand what death means. It’s important that you sit down with the child and talk to them about the death of a loved one. Use simple words that they can easily understand, be as honest as you can, and answer questions that they may come up with as you converse.
Put feelings and emotions into words
Many children have a hard time expressing their emotions. Some, may not even understand the different emotions that they feel when a loved one passes. It’s important that you put words into these feelings and emotions. Help the child understand the different feelings that they feel. Let the children express what they are feeling. It’s an important and necessary step towards healing!
Try to explain what will happen next
Big changes may come after the death of a loved one, especially if it’s someone very close to the child like his/her parents or siblings. Explain to the child the events and major changes that will happen next. Like if they have to move in with their grandparents, or to an aunt/uncle. Be as concise as you can when explaining why these changes are necessary and if it’s only for their good.
Give comfort and reassurance
Imagine how a child would feel losing someone very close to them. What the child needs most is comfort and reassurance that they are not alone and it will soon pass. Comfort means being present when they need you. Books that help children deal with loss and grief are also a big help to children going through such a difficult time. Children’s storybooks that talk about grieving help the child feel safe and that they are not alone.
Give the child time to deal with the loss
Time heals. Give the child enough time to go through the grieving process, at their own pace. Let the child take time to heal, they will feel better in time.
As a parent, guardian, or relative, be mindful of the child’s behaviour. If they are showing signs of traumatic grief or PTSD, consult a medical professional immediately. Trauma has some serious effects on the child, so it’s very important that these traumatic experiences are addressed before they even complicate.