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'Grief is hard' | Helping children cope with grief starts with listening, mental health professional says

Mental Health Counselor Sherri Ray says children feel and show their grief in different ways, and how they cope often depends on the support they receive.

TOLEDO, Ohio — As we reach the one-year mark for the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have lost a loved one. But due to social distancing and loss of immediate community support, some are struggling to cope.

Mental Health Counselor Sherri Ray says children feel and show their grief in different ways, and how they cope often depends on the support they receive, especially from parents and close family.

"Children and teens present with their grief in a different way. So, with younger children it may be more severe behavior, new behaviors, maybe becoming clingy because they're afraid to be alone," Ray said.

Parents want the best for their kids so understanding their grief is important. For younger children, Ray says their language is play, so parents can do things at home with art, like encouraging them to draw their feelings or a favorite memory of the loved one.  

"Maybe making a memory box that includes photos or items from that person to help them remember them, that's really helpful," Ray suggested. 

Sharing memories with other family members through Zoom calls also works with young kids. Teens tend to become withdrawn or show symptoms of depression or bouts of anger, so the best way to reach out to a grieving child is by listening.

 "Giving them the opportunity to express everything that's going on inside of them,” said Ray, “and really just being compassionate and validating of those experiences." 

When talking about death, use simple, clear words. Be honest and give your child time to heal from the loss. Just keep in mind that kids process death in bits and pieces, so as much as we may want to see them bounce back quickly, it may take some time.

Therapists say one thing you should not say to a child, at least immediately, is that "everything's going to be OK," because it can invalidate what they're experiencing.

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