Grief is a complex and challenging emotion for anyone to navigate, but it can be especially overwhelming for children and youth who have lost a parent or sibling. In the wake of such a profound loss, it’s common for these kids to grapple with feelings of guilt and inadequacy, particularly when it comes to their performance in school or with their friends. As caregivers, it’s important to recognize and address these emotions, providing the support and guidance our children need to heal and grow.
Guilt is a natural response to loss, and it often stems from a child’s perception that they could have done something differently to prevent the tragedy or illness that claimed the person in their life that died. This guilt can manifest in various ways, including feeling like they didn’t do well enough in school or that they were somehow responsible for their sibling or parent’s death. It’s crucial to acknowledge that these feelings are part of the grieving process and are not indicative of a child’s actual responsibility for the loss.
There are five things that you, as a caregiver can try to help grieving kids cope with their feelings of guilt.
1. Help your child see the loss is not their fault.
If you notice your child may be feeling guilty, gently reassure your child that they are not responsible for the death. You might say that grief and loss are natural parts of life and people die for reasons beyond anyone’s control. Emphasize that they are not to blame. If your child’s feelings of responsibility are based on a misunderstanding or misconception, calmly and truthfully clarify the situation. For example, if they think they caused an accident but did not, provide the accurate details to help them understand. If possible, involve other trusted adults in your child’s life, such as teachers, coaches, or family members, to provide additional support and understanding.
2. Open communication.
Create an environment where open and honest communication is encouraged. Allow your child to express their feelings without judgment or criticism. Create a safe space for them to share their thoughts, fears, and worries. You might respond by saying something like, “Thank you so much for sharing that with me,” or “your worries are safe with me.” This can help them process their emotions and provide them with reassurance that they are not alone in their feelings.
3. Normalize their emotions.
Grief can often make children feel isolated, as they may believe that their emotions are unusual or unwarranted. It’s important to normalize their feelings of guilt and inadequacy by explaining that these emotions are a natural part of the grieving process. You could say, “It makes a lot of sense that you feel that way,” or “I’m sure you’re not alone in those feelings.” One of our campers shared that she felt like the death of her person was her fault. After sharing this, another camper shared that she felt the same way. By sharing and normalizing these feelings, both campers were able to realize that they were not alone.
4. Encourage self-compassion.
Self-compassion is important for grieving children because it can help provide them with the tools they need to navigate grief in healthy and constructive ways. Self-compassion allows kids to be kinder to themselves, reduce self-blame, build resilience, and develop healthy coping strategies. Teach your child that it’s okay to make mistakes and that no one is perfect. Share your own experiences of making mistakes and learning from them. Encourage them to treat themselves with the same kindness and understanding they would offer to a friend.
5. Seek professional help.
Sometimes, children may experience overwhelming guilt and struggle to cope with their emotions on their own. In such cases, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide the necessary guidance and support to help your child navigate their feelings of guilt and grief.
Dealing with feelings of guilt and inadequacy is a common aspect of the grieving process for children and youth who are experiencing grief. As caregivers, our role is crucial in helping them navigate these emotions in a healthy and constructive way. By fostering open communication, offering validation and reassurance, encouraging self-compassion, and seeking professional help when necessary, we can support our children in their journey toward healing and self-acceptance. Remember that each child’s grieving process is unique, and it’s important to be patient and compassionate as they work through their emotions on their grief journey.
Pam Green is a registered social worker, psychotherapist living in Ottawa, Canada. Summer 2023 was her first summer volunteering as a Grief Specialist at Experience Camps, Maine Girls location. When she’s at home, she works with youth (age 13+) to support them through emotional and relational issues. She is committed to making the therapeutic space as welcoming, comfortable and supportive as possible. When she’s not working, you can find her reading, hiking, or doing a crossword puzzle. Visit https://therapyclub.ca/ for more.