Mourning the Loss of a Loved One: Helping Children on the Spectrum through the Grieving Process

As a parent, consider the range of emotions you have experienced after the loss of a loved one (e.g., grief, guilt, shock, loneliness, compassion, etc.), and think of how that might reflect in your ASD or high-functioning autistic (HFA) youngster during his first loss. 

The difference may be that while you outwardly show a variety of feelings associated with loss, you may not see similar emotions in your "special needs" youngster.

Just like you, comprehending the loss of a loved one – even a beloved pet – may take time for your youngster to completely process. Just because he doesn’t grieve in “typical” ways (e.g., openly sobbing, wanting to be with family members, talking to close friends, etc.) doesn't mean he is emotionless or unaffected. In fact, the opposite could be true.

Tips for helping HFA children through the grieving process:

1. An HFA youngster's capacity to understand death — and your approach to discussing it — will vary according to the youngster's age.

2. As children mature into teenagers, they start to understand that every human being eventually dies, regardless of grades, behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do. As your HFA teenager's understanding about death evolves, questions may naturally come up about mortality and vulnerability. These young people also tend to search more for meaning in the death of someone close to them. A teenager who asks why someone had to die probably isn't looking for literal answers, but starting to explore the idea of the meaning of life. They also tend to experience some guilt, particularly if one of their friends died. Whatever your teen is experiencing, the best thing you can do is to encourage the expression and sharing of grief.

3. Children from the ages of about 6 to 10 start to grasp the finality of death, even if they don't understand that it will happen to every living thing one day. A 9-year-old might think, for example, that by behaving or making a wish, grandma won't die. Often, children this age personify death and think of it as the "boogeyman" or a ghost or a skeleton. They deal best with death when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened.

4. Don't be quick to scold if your youngster's emotions seem inappropriate (e.g., laughing during a solemn discussion). He may be on the verge of meltdown and is distracting himself by playing a mind movie.

5. Don't be surprised if your youngster reports that he has seen, talked with, smelled, or otherwise interacted with the loved one who has recently passed. Remember that your youngster may be very sensitive to many things, seen and unseen. Instead, validate what your youngster tells you by listening carefully, requesting further information, asking clarifying questions, and providing assurances.

6. Don't get angry if your youngster catches you off-guard with seemingly insensitive questions (e.g., about the mechanics of embalming, cremation, burial, body decomposition, etc.). These are honest inquiries designed to contribute to your youngster's understanding and comfort level.

7. Encourage questions. This can be hard because you may not have all of the answers. But it's important to create an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send the message that there's no one right or wrong way to feel.

8. Follow your youngster's lead. It’s not helpful to exclude him from participating in any of the subsequent formalities (i.e., the funeral or other rituals) if he expresses a desire to attend.

9. If possible, assign your youngster a responsibility. This may help him to maintain focus during what may be a chaotic and upsetting time (especially helpful for preteens and teens).

10. If you need help, many resources — from books to counselors to community organizations — can provide guidance. Your efforts will go a long way in helping your youngster get through this difficult time — and through the inevitable losses and tough times that come later in life.

11. If you think your own grief might prevent you from helping your "special needs" youngster during this difficult time, ask a friend or family member to care for - and focus on - your youngster during the funeral service. Choose someone you both like and trust who won't mind leaving the funeral if your youngster needs to go.

12. Many moms and dads worry about letting their children witness their own grief, pain, and tears about a death. Don't! Allowing your youngster to see your pain shows that crying is a natural reaction to emotional pain and loss. And it can make children more comfortable sharing their feelings. But, it's also important to convey that - no matter how sad you may feel - you'll still be able to care for your family and make your youngster feel safe.

13. Moms and dads can't always shield children from sadness and losses. But helping them learn to cope with them builds emotional resources they can rely on throughout life.

14. Remember that the questions you get may sound much deeper than they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where someone who died is now probably isn't asking whether there's an afterlife. Rather, children might be satisfied hearing that someone who died is now in the cemetery. This may also be a time to share your beliefs about an afterlife or heaven if that is part of your belief system.

15. Remember that honesty is the best policy. You may be pressured by well-meaning friends or relatives to offer some alternate explanation for the loss of a loved one (e.g., “Grandpa is resting in the ground now”). At some point, your sugar-coated explanation may be exposed, and the cover-up (despite your good intentions) might upset the trust between you and your youngster.

16. Remember that learning how to deal with grief is like coping with other physical, mental, and emotional tasks — it's a process.

17. Until children are about 5 or 6 years old, their view of the world is very literal. So explain death in basic and concrete terms. If the loved one was ill or elderly, for example, you might explain that the person's body wasn't working anymore and the doctors couldn't fix it. If someone dies suddenly, like in an accident, you might explain what happened — that because of this very sad event, the person's body stopped working. You may have to explain that "dying" or "dead" means that the body stopped working.

18. Watch for any signs that children need help coping with a loss. If a youngster's behavior changes radically — for example, a gregarious and easygoing youngster becomes angry, withdrawn, or extremely anxious; or goes from having straight A's to D's in school — then be sure to seek help.

19. What do you tell an HFA youngster about the funeral? You may want to explain that the body of the person who died is going to be in a casket, and that the person won't be able to talk or see or hear anything. Explain that others may speak about the person who died and that some mourners may be crying.

20. Younger children often have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that it is final and they won't come back. So, even after you've explained this, children may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can't come back. 

Note: The child who is having serious problems with grief and loss may show one or more of these signs:
  • acting much younger than his age for an extended period of time
  • an extended period of depression in which the youngster loses interest in daily activities and events
  • excessively imitating the dead person
  • inability to sleep
  • loss of appetite
  • prolonged fear of being alone
  • refusal to attend school
  • repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person
  • sharp drop in school performance
  • withdrawal from friends

If these signs persist, professional help may be needed. A qualified mental health professional can help the youngster accept the death and assist the others in helping him or her through the mourning process.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism 

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... I had to handle this with my son through the loss if two grand fathers and a dog all in two years. It was traumatic for him but he has handled himself well. I agree with all the suggestions. For my son, I had him pick a few special pictures to have in his room, had him help put together scrapbooks for him so he can revisit them whenever he feels the need. And we are a family that talks about of feelings so we talk about all of them often but happy and sad times.
•    Anonymous said... pretty much be honest with them and let them ask questions in a safe loving environment. My son was there they whole time my Dad was sick and dying. I think it helped that he knew what was happening and that Papa was not in pain and loved greatly. I never pushed him to do anything he didn't want to do. He did, however, disappear at the funeral. I got SO scared but found him hiding behind a couch-the noise/people were just too much for him (he also had sensory processing disorder). We still talk about Papa often and how he misses him. But I assure him that he is watching over us and hopefully one day we will all be together. Let them know their feelings are normal and they can talk about things anytime.
•    Anonymous said... This looks to be a marvelous opportunity for all family members involved. Fortunately, I am very interested in the many complexities of the psychy and it's challenges to those diagnosed with any mental "dis-eases" causing various stresses and difficulties growing up & continuing on through adulthood, if this is the case (and usually is). I only wish I were closer to my grandson, so I could be there in the moments, and not just be "out there somewhere"! He is growing up so fast, and I'm not even a part of his life. It all makes me want to cry. I am going to follow this group and try to learn as much as I can, hoping in the process, I can seriously reach out to him. I really have to get a handle on this issue and the part I want to play, literally/emotionally, in his life from now on.

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