As our church community mourns and remembers the bright life of Kairo Mensah, many are asking -- "How can we help our children navigate grief?"
One of the first things to understand is where your child is developmentally in understanding and processing grief.
What I share below are my learnings from a Loss & Grief course I took in my MSW program. It is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it serves as a jumping off point in how to come alongside your child during seasons of grief. At the end of this post are several resources to consider as well.
- Ages 0-2: Preverbal. Can’t understand death/grief but very in tune with adults' emotions. They may be aggressive or withdrawn—attend to their nonverbal cues by holding, rocking and soothing.
- Ages 2-5: Children love books, being held and read to. Developmentally this group cannot hold concepts for long, so they will ask again (“where did grandma go?” etc.) Be prepared to repeat and not get frustrated. Take breaks—singing/laughing releases dopamine and helps form neural pathways to feel secure in processing.
- Ages 5-9: This stage of children has a better understanding of death, but needs help grasping the *universality* of death—can cause anxiety. Use concrete language (“Grandma died. Grandma’s body stopped working,") vs. abstract (“Grandma went to sleep/got sick,”) as abstract can cause anxiety in kids this age (“Will I die when I go to sleep tonight?”, “My friend is sick=they are going to die.”) This age needs help assessing the risk of death. They may want to keep an eye on mom/dad—help them understand the role of kids vs. adults, that they don’t need to protect you.
**PLAYING and identifying emotions is important to the ages above. Help by teaching emotions: happy, angry, sad, afraid, ashamed, and then verbalizing—“I’m mad about…”, “I miss ____.”
- Ages 9-12: Kids this age can be concerned/preoccupied with the physical process of death. Developmentally they can handle more abstract ideas. Try to answer their questions; don’t shy away. Consider writing out scripts for self-talk. Nine- through 12-year-olds can connect with symbols (making a bracelet/suncatcher etc. etc. in remembrance).
- Teens: Emotions can be more intense. These kids may want to address meaning. They may have big questions—you don’t have to have the answers but remind them that you are there for them. They may be more reliant on their friend group to process—understand that developmentally they are establishing life outside of their home cocoon and peer support can be a good way for them to grieve.
As we navigate this grief together as a church, may we intentionally be Framily to one another, as God has called us to be.
For additional resources on children and grief, please consider the following, recommended by Pastor Rich, Micah Morgan and Gretchen Greenawalt:
- Book: Aliyah's Missing Teddy Bear
- Article: Helping Children Deal With Grief
- Article: Grief and Children (understanding what it looks like and when to get professional help)
- Secular book recommendations: Scholastic.com, huffpost.com (I haven't been able to find a religious children's book that doesn't get a bit problematic theologically, so I thought I'd offer some secular ones that just focus on the emotional and creative experience of processing grief as a child)
- Article: 7 Strategies to Help Children Cope With Grief
- Video: Helping Kids Grieve
- Website: Children's Bereavement Center
- Local therapeutic option for children: Cornerstone of Hope
- Local therapeutic option for children: Directions Counseling Group