Grief, Loss, Bereavement and Play Therapy

Helping children with grief can be daunting for adults, but there are a few simple things you can do to help. Children can experience grief from a very young age. For example, even very small babies can be impacted by the loss of a parent. While death of someone close is one of the hardest experiences for children, children can grieve for many other reasons as well.

Children can grieve for many reasons, including:

  • The death of a family member, friend, or pet
  • The separation or divorce of their parents and the family break-up
  • Changing schools or moving house
  • Losing a friendship
  • Moving townships, interstate, or to a new country
  • Getting a medical illness or disability
  • Having a family member in hospital for a long time
Grief, Loss, Bereavement and Play Therapy

Children’s reactions to a loss can vary. Sometimes they may not seem to be upset at all and at other times may appear very upset. They may also try to hide their feelings to protect a caregiver who is grieving. Children’s reactions to grief also depend on their age, stage of development and personality.

Children’s reaction to grief can include:

  • Fluctuating grief. For example, crying one minute then happy or playing the next (children have short attention spans and so they grieve in short bursts).
  • Thinking the loss is reversible or only happens to other people (e.g., death, family breakdown, illness).
  • Asking confronting questions about death and dying and seem very matter of fact about it.
  • Become irritable, withdrawn or showing signs of insecurity.
  • Have nightmares and/or difficulty sleeping.
  • Feel responsible for the loss (death, family break-up etc).
  • Show signs of regression or acting younger than they are e.g., bed wetting, talking like a baby, clinging behaviours.
  • Have physical reactions like tummy aches, headaches or feeling sick.
  • ‘Acting out’ feelings rather than talking about them.
Grief, Loss, Bereavement and Play Therapy

Helping children with grief:

  • Reassure them that it is ok to be upset. Try to ‘sit by their side’ with them in their grief by using reflective listening rather than telling them everything will be ok or helping them try to be positive.
  • Be open to having similar conversations with them several times. Children need time to process information.
  • Try to give brief and simple explanations. Enough information for their age and no more (unless they ask for more).
  • Maintain routines and as many ‘normal’ aspects of life as possible.
  • Provide opportunities for them to express their grief, for example, through drawing or painting, storytelling, or craft activities (like making a memory box or collage).

How Play Therapy can help:

  • Play is the natural way that children communicate; Play Therapy allows children to use play to work through the many confusing emotions that can arise from loss, such as sadness, anger, confusion and fear.
  • Feelings of loss can be quite scary for children to feel and talk about. With Play Therapy, children can distance themselves from the loss through symbolic play, for example, by making a toy dog feel sad. In this way, children can process their feelings without confronting the loss directly, which keeps them protected from being overwhelmed by emotion.
  • Play provides children with safety which allows them to express and explore their innermost feelings and vulnerabilities. Play Therapy allows children to process the feelings of loss at their own pace, in their own unique way, ensuring they are not further impacted by forcing them to confront issues they are not psychologically ready to face