Helping Children Deal With Grief
“Verily we belong to Allah, and verily to Him we will return”
The Holy Qur’an 2:156
Allah (swt) Created every living thing in this world to die and as human beings we all know that death will greet every one of us at the appointed time. As Muslims we seek comfort in knowing that death is not the end but rather a transition into the next stage in our journey back towards our Creator.
We need to raise our children to understand death in this way and to not fear death but rather view it as a reminder that our life needs to be lived in a way that is serving and pleasing only to Allah (swt). However, knowing this to be true does not diminish the reality that losing a loved one is one of the most painful of human experiences, and for children it can be bewildering.
The article below was written with parents or other adults in a child’s life in mind. It aims to offer some suggestions and tips on how to help the child in your life come to terms with the loss of a loved one and help in managing their grief.
Look After Yourself & Manage Your Own Grief
Before you can help your child, it is important to ensure that you yourself are ok and allow yourself the time and space to process your own grief. You should also be aware that there may be times where you can’t be fully emotionally available for your child, and to know that this is ok, but make sure you get support needed.
For some adults losing a loved one, aside from the current grief, can often trigger unresolved grief from the past or bring up unprocessed emotions from previous experiences. If you are struggling, then it is important that you seek the proper help needed to process your own emotions and trauma.
Explain from an Islamic Perspective & with Honesty
Explain what has happened in an age-appropriate way with honesty and from our faith perspective. Research has found that when discussing bereavement with children, an open and honest approach is the best. If we don’t discuss what has happened with children, children will form their own conclusions which can lead to fear, anxiety etc. With young children avoid using terms that may be ambiguous e.g. ‘gone away’ or ‘left us’, ‘we’ve lost …’– as a child may think the person in mind has gone off somewhere, become lost etc rather than died.
Discussions should be done in a way to provide your child with just enough information without burdening them beyond their capability.
Being honest about what has happened can be framed within an Islamic context by discussing with children the Islamic view of the Hereafter which will help bring them comfort.
For example: You know Grandpa has been unwell and was in pain, well he’s no longer in pain, he has died, and Allah (swt) Has taken him back to be with Him in Jannah InShaAllah.
You can also discuss how those who do good will receive their reward with Allah (swt) and how the person who has passed away will now be in a place of peace and calm, InShaAllah.
Answer Your Child’s Questions
As you are discussing what has happened, many children will have questions and you may be struck by their forthrightness in some cases! Children are naturally curious, and the biggest and smallest things can fill them with intrigue and wonder. Answer their questions honestly and to the best to your ability. If you don’t know the answer, then it is ok to say you don’t know. For children that are less vocal you can provide creative methods for them to communicate (as discussed in further details below).
Creating a Safe Space to Express Feelings
To help your child process their grief you need to be available for your child – both physically but also emotionally. Your child needs to know that they can come to you and safely express their feelings without fear of being ignored, invalidated or judged.
You could say for example: And I want you to know that it is ok to feel sad or angry even numb or whatever you may be feeling. All feelings are ok and you can come to me anytime with them.
For more about validating emotions please see the articles under All About Emotions in the Village Library.
It is also ok for your child to see you cry. Managing your emotions does not mean hiding your feelings, but rather expressing them in a way and manner so as not to burden the child with your own grief. It is healthy however for your child to learn that expressing sorrow (in a balanced way) is allowed, so modelling this for them can be a positive thing.
Know Your Child
Children will grieve differently so it’s important to be aware of this. Some children will internalise their feelings due to their temperament, learnt behaviour including wanting to protect the adults around them. They may display more withdrawn behaviours such as being quieter, eating less or in many cases they may display no overt signs, however this does not mean they are not grieving.
Other children will externalise their grief which could manifest in a range of acting out behaviours such as getting angry, shouting, fighting etc. It is important to remember that a child’s behaviour often communicates a deeper emotional need. It can also help to speak to your child’s teachers at school to find out if they have noticed any differences in your child’s behaviour or school work.
Rituals and Memories
Whilst as Muslims we have our own rituals and ways of mourning the deceased, below are some suggestions for some additional rituals you can do with your child to help them process their grief.
♥ Make a Memory Box: use an empty box such as a shoe box that your child can decorate. Then help your child collect or make things that remind them of the lost loved one, memories of time spent together etc. It can include anything from items of clothing, trinkets, pictures and letters – anything that evokes a memory. It can also include Duas or Quranic verses that were especially meaningful to the lost person or one’s your child would like to include. When your child is missing the loved one they can open the memory box and remember all the happy times they shared.
♥ Write a Letter: encouraging your child to write a letter to the person who has died is another effective method of helping to process grief. Your child can express whatever they want such as how much they miss the person, what they are doing at school, what they did for Eid etc. Discuss with your child what they would like to do with the letter afterwards e.g. put it in the memory box, in a safe space or dispose of it in a safe way.
♥ Sow a Seed/Plant a Tree: Planting a tree in memory of the lost loved one can be a beautiful way to commemorate their life, if there is a space to do so. The child can be involved in the digging and planting of the sapling/tree and then they can help to water and nurture it. If there is a lack of space, then you can have your child sow a seed of a flower or plant that they associate with the lost loved one. Once big enough the plant can be planted in a window box, in a pot on a balcony or in a garden if you have one. Plants symbolise life and hope but also show us the cyclical nature of life and death which can serve as further points of discussion and reflection.
Creative & Non-Verbal Approaches
Providing your child with non-verbal ways to grieve is also important. Many children will not be able to, or will not want to, articulate their feelings. Having a range of craft and art materials available – such as paper, card, glue, pens, paint etc, can provide your child with the means to express their feelings creatively which can be extremely healing. Also having malleable items such as playdough or slime that can be squished or bashed, provides another way for children to physically express and process their feelings.
The above approaches are effective for all age groups but journaling is another creative and therapeutic activity that can be used with older children and teenagers.
Provide your child/teen with a notebook or journal and encourage them to write or doodle in it whatever they want. They can write about how they feel or anything that comes to mind. Do respect your child/teens privacy and ask them to share what they have written only if they want to.
Other activities such as cooking and sport can provide other helpful non-verbal methods of helping to process emotions.
Nature as Healer
Getting outside into nature is another very effective way of helping a child process grief. Being in the natural world is therapeutic in itself and research has indicated how is provides a calming effect and boosts a sense of wellbeing. Going for a walk in a forest or in a park also provides the opportunity to reflect upon and discuss with your child how everything in nature has a cycle of life and death, and ultimately everything returns to Allah (swt). The natural world is laden with wisdom and beautiful metaphors that can help a child connect to Allah (swt) and help them understand that the cycle of life and death is part of His Plan. You can point out that within the cycle of life and death there is actually a continuity as everything returns to Allah (swt) and we will be reunited with those whom we love in Paradise InShaAllah.
There are many story books that have been produced to help children when they have lost a loved one. A few are listed below, but search online to find what you think would be suitable for your child.
♥ The Invisible String by Patrice Karst – focuses on the unbreakable connections that remain even after the separation from or loss of a loved one
♥ The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup – helps children think about the memories left behind when a loved one dies
♥ The Memory Box: a book about grief by Joanna Rowland – helps children cope with loss of a loved one and helps to process their grief
From our own faith perspective we can also share stories from our Islamic history and talk about how grief is experienced by everyone even the prophets (as). For example, Prophet Yacob’s (as) grief when he thought he had lost his beloved son Yusuf (as); our blessed Prophet Muhammad’s (saws) grief when in the same year (referred to as the Year of Grief) he lost both his uncle and protector Abu Talib, and his beloved wife Lady Khadija (as).
This should be done in a way to help your child feel that they are not alone in their grief, but that it is something that everyone, even our beloved Prophet (saws) and his blessed family (as), experienced.
Maintaining a Connection
Within our traditions there are various Duas that can be recited for the deceased. Find ones that are appropriate for your child and have them recite them, or recite them with your child if preferable.
You can also ask your child to create their own Duas, in their own words, for the person they have lost. This may be more meaningful and heartfelt for your child and provide a way for them to articulate what they are feeling.
Encourage your child to perform a good deed or give Sadaqah and to ask Allah (swt) for the reward to be given to the loved one they have lost. Knowing they can still ‘reach’ and help the loved person they have lost will help your child maintain a feeling of connection.
Children often gain comfort from feeling that the departed person is still somehow aware of them, watching over them and knows what they are doing. This is because it helps them feel the relationship with the lost person, the connection, is still alive – gifting duas, good deeds for those who have died helps foster this sense of ongoing connection and is also encouraged within our faith.
Discussing memories of the lost loved one with your child also helps them maintain a sense of connection. The memory box activity (above) helps with this but you can also discuss fond or happy memories of the departed loved one at any time with your child to help them with their grief.
Building on Strengths
It’s important to convey to children that you know that they can cope with the adversity of losing someone they love. Children are naturally resilient given the right environment and they will all process grief in their own unique way. Allah (swt) sends trials to strengthen us and to develop our character as He Alone Knows what we are capable of.
Therefore, whilst acknowledging the hardship and pain your child may be going through, also let them know that they are strong and Allah will not burden them with anything that He Knows they cannot deal with. And as we are reassured in the Holy Quran 94:6:
Verily with every hardship comes ease.
When Your Child is Struggling
Grief is a natural part of the human condition. If the child is allowed to grieve within a safe and validating environment then the child will be able to process this experience in a healthy way. However due to a variety of factors some children may have difficulties with grieving and its effects may start to have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing and daily life months and even years after the bereavement. If your child is struggling please do seek the help of a mental health professional or your GP.