Grieving Children – an introduction

Children are often forgotten during the grief process. Yet children also experience deep grief, and they need our help in working through it.  In many cases a grieving child will have parents and siblings experiencing grief from the same loss, and the children’‛s need are overlooked or neglected.

Grief is an expression of love. Mourning is an appropriate emotion for people of all ages.  Children are no strangers to unhappy feelings – they know what it means to be mad, sad, guilty, afraid and lonely.

According to Dr. John Bowlby, children may express three phases of a normal grieving process.  The first is protest when they cannot quite believe that the person is dead and they attempt, sometimes angrily, to regain him or her. The next is pain, despair and disorganization when youngsters begin to accept the fact that the loved one is gone.  Finally, there is hope, when they reorganize their life without the deceased.

Children’‛s responses to grief fluctuate according to their concepts of death, their developmental level, and the way they had related to the person now dead.  Some will not speak about the individual who died; others will speak of nothing else.  Some will cry hysterically; others will remain outwardly impassive and emotionless; while others may even laugh. Some will praise the deceased as the most wonderful person in the whole wide world; others will hate the individual for leaving them alone and abandoned.  Some will blame themselves for the death; others will project their grief upon God, the physician, emergency responders, the clergy, the funeral director, or members of the family. Children’‛s despair is often interrupted by a carefree mood, vacillating between sadness and playful joy.  In short, reactions are varied and contradictory, often unpredictable.

Children should not be deprived of the right to grieve.  They should no more be excluded from sharing grief and sorrow than they should be prevented from demonstrating joy and happiness.  Each person should be given the opportunity to lament the end of life and love in his or her own way.

Tears are a tender tribute of yearning affection for those who have died but are not forgotten.  Weeping helps to soften the heartache – to express that inevitable depth of despair that follows the slow realization that the death is not a bad dream.

Six Basic Principles about Children and Grief

(from the Dougy Center – The National Center for Grieving Children and Families)

1. Grief is a natural reaction to loss.

When a person dies, those who are impacted by the death experience grief. This is true for infants through adults, although the grief will vary from person to person. Grief does not feel natural, partly because we cannot always control our response or the experience.  The sense of being out of control may be overwhelming or frightening, yet grieving is natural, normal and healthy.

2. Each person’s experience is unique.

While many theories of the grieving process may provide a helpful framework for understanding grief, the path itself is a lonely, solitary and unique one for every individual. No book, article, or grief therapist can predict or prescribe exactly what a child, teen, or adult will – or should – go through or experience.  Those who wish to assist people in grief do best by walking with them, in the role of listener and learner, allowing the griever to teach them about his or her unique grief journey.

3. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Coping with a death does not follow a defined pattern or set of rules. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve.  There are, however, “helpful” and “unhelpful” choices and behaviors.  Some choices and behaviors are constructive, life-affirming actions, while others are destructive and harmful, causing long-term complications. Because the sheer pain of loss often feels “crazy”, it may be challenging to decide which thoughts, feelings and actions are helpful, and which are not.  Usually grieving children get plenty of advice from others about what they should and shouldn’‛t do, feel, think and believe following a death. What they usually need more than advice is a non-judgmental, listening ear helping them to sort through the options and alternatives.

4. Every Death is different, and will be experienced in different ways.

Children commonly react in different ways to the death of a parent, sibling, other relative or friend.  It makes sense – each relationship meets different needs and is uniquely personal.  Some of the grief literature talks about loss in an almost competitive way as if some losses are worse than others. You may read that the death of a child is ‘the worst loss.” Or that suicide is the hardest to “get over.” Comparisons about which death is the worst are not helpful, and may lead to unrealistic expectations or demands.  While an individual may speak for himself or herself about what he or she experiences, one cannot categorically say that any loss is worse than, or easier than, another.

Within a family each person may grieve very differently too.  For example, one member may want to talk, another one may cry all the time, and another one may want to be alone.  This can create additional stress and difficulty within an already- stressed family.  Each person’’s way should be honored as his or her way of coping.

5. The grieving process is influenced by a multitude of issues.

There are many issues impacting how one reacts to a death.  Some of these include: the strength of the social support systems available (family, friends, community, colleagues), the nature of the death and how the griever interprets that, whether or not there was “unfinished business” between the griever and the person who has died, the previous nature of that relationship and the emotional and developmental age of the griever.

6. Grief never ends. It is something you never get “over.”

This is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of grief in our society.  It seems most people are anxious for us to put the loss behind us, to go on, to get over it.

More about Children and Grief

Children grieve as part of a family

When experiencing a significant loss, it affects the way in which the family functions. Family roles and responsibilities may adjust to accommodate the new needs in the family structure.  Children may grieve not only for the deceased loved one, but also for the secondary losses which often result; for example: changes in routine, decreased attention from parents, increased personal responsibility, etc.

Children re-grieve

They work through their grief in cycles. Each time a new developmental milestone is attained they will use that skill to express their grief, i.e. language. (Also milestones such as starting school, first time on a sports team, first prom, going to college, getting married, having their first baby, etc.) These will be points where their loss will be re- grieved.

Children are often repetitive in their grief

By asking the same questions over and over again, children are able to gain understanding and come to terms with their grief.  Answering the child’’s repeated questions with the same information gives the child a sense of stability, consistency and trust in that relationship.

Young children are concrete thinkers

Adults frequently use euphemisms when describing the death often to soften the blow of this difficult reality.  Adults need to exercise caution when using euphemisms so that children are not further scared or confused.  For instance, if we say “We lost Grandma today,” a child may want to know why people are not looking for her.  A child may also wonder, “If I get lost, will anyone look for me?”  An explanation like “Dad is sleeping peacefully now,” may create a fear of sleeping.

Causation

One of the most common worries or beliefs children may have is that they did or did not do something which in turn caused the death of their loved one. Young children are egocentric – they believe the world revolves around them and that their thoughts can make something happen.  Understandably they often have a great sense of guilt. One way to allay this misconception is to explain that our thoughts and feelings are just not strong enough to cause someone else to get sick  

Important things to remember about children’‛s grief:

  • Children tend to go in and out of grief – we call this “grief bursts”
  • Not all children talk about their grief
  • Some children don’t seem to be affected at all
  • Play is one way children make sense of their world
  • It’s not unusual for children to experience physical reactions
  • It’s not unusual for children to experience difficulties thinking or concentrating
  • The child’s or teen‛s developmental age will influence his or her reactions to the death
  • It is not unusual or uncommon for children to believe they have seen or heard the deceased person

Listening to Kids

Pitfalls to avoid:

1. Don’t say you know how they feel

Even if you have experienced a similar loss, you don’t know how anyone else feels.

Every person is unique and their experience of grieving is different from yours. You can say you also had your father die when you were a child, and you know something about what that’‛s like.  But don’t say “I know how you feel.” Rather say, “tell me how you feel.” Or ‘I am here to listen if you want to talk about the death.”

2. Don‛t tell them what to do unless they ask for your advice.

Many adults jump in too quickly to try to “solve” a child’s problems, or tell them what they should or should not do.  Most children, and nearly all teenagers, resent this.  Help them come to their own decisions and conclusions by listening, and by helping them look at the options available to them.  On the other hand, if they ask for your advice, give it honestly.

3. Don’t patronize them by saying trite things.

Don’t tell a child he or she was lucky to have his mother or father for as long as he or she did.  Don’t tell them they’ll be all right in a year or two. Don’t try to take their pain away by saying things intended to “solve” or take away their pain.

4. Don’t say “You’re the man (or woman) of the house now.”

Boys whose fathers die and girls whose mothers die continue to be told by well- meaning but uninformed adults that they are now they man (or woman) of the house and need to take good care of their mother (or father.) This puts children and teens in unrealistic roles, with impossible tasks.  Children are children, and need to be able to be children.  They should not have to parent a parent, or parent their siblings.

But I don’t know what to say!

It is not what you say that matters to a grieving person as much as your openness to listening. Most people do not remember the things that people say to them in the days following a death (unless they are hurtful or insensitive – then they remember!). They remember who showed they cared, who listened, and who was available to be with them. Too many people try hard to make grieving children and adults “feel better,” and it often backfires.

When you truly don’t know what to say, say that!  Say, “I don’t know what to say. There are no words that can bring your father back, but I want you know that I care and want to help in any way I can”

Developmental Stages of Grief

Studies show that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. For example, preschool children usually see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously rise up whole again after having been crushed or blown apart tends to reinforce this notion.

Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to realize that death is final and that all living things die, but still they do not see death as personal. They harbor the idea that somehow they can escape through their own ingenuity and efforts. During this stage, children also tend to personify death. They may associate death with a skeleton or the angel of death, and some children have nightmares about them.

From nine or ten through adolescence, children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they too will die some day. Some begin to work on developing philosophical views of life and death. Teenagers, especially, often become intrigued with seeking the meaning of life. Some youngsters react to their fear of death by taking unnecessary chances with their lives. In confronting death, they are trying to overcome their fears by confirming their “control” over mortality.

Pre-Teens Ages 10-12

Grief Reactions

– Shock, denial, anxiety, distress

– Façade of coping

– Finality of death understood

– Phobic curiosity

– Peer conformity

– May need physical activity on a regular basis

How Pre-Teens and Early Adolescents Express Grief

– Physical symptoms (headaches, stomachaches, sleeping and eating disorders, hypochondria)

– Wide mood swings

– Able to verbally express emotions

– Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness

– Increase in risk-taking and self-destructive behaviors

– Irritability, anger, aggression, fighting, oppositional behavior

– Withdrawal from adults

– Depression, sadness

– Lack of concentration and attention

– Identity confusion, testing limits

Helping the Grieving Pre-Teen and Early Adolescent

– Answer questions directly and honestly; be truthful and factual

– Give them reassurance about the future

– Create time to talk about families

– Use reading as a starting place for conversations

– Need to be able to make informed choices

– Accept that they will experience mood swings and physical symptoms

– Encourage them to honestly recognize their painful feelings and find
positive outlets in physical and creative activities

– Listen for the feelings behind their words and actions and respond with
empathy.

– Help them develop and maintain their sense of identity

– Allow preteens to make choices that are not harmful; encourage safe
expressions and experiences of beginning independence

Adolescents ages 13  17

Grief Reactions

– Shock, denial, anxiety, distress

– Sadness, irritability, anger, depression, withdrawal, aggression

– Feeling helpless, empty and/or lonely

– Sleep and/or appetite changes

– Restlessness and over activity

– Preoccupation with thoughts of one’‛s own death or death of others close
to them

– May feel young and vulnerable, may need to talk

How Adolescents Express Grief

– Physical symptoms (headaches, stomachaches, sleeping and eating disorders,
hypochondria)

– Wide mood swings

– Able to verbally express emotions

– Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness

– Increase in risk-taking and self-destructive behaviors

– Irritability, anger, aggression, fighting, oppositional behavior

– Withdrawal from adults

– Depression, sadness

– Lack of concentration and attention

– Identity confusion, testing limits

Helping the Grieving Adolescent

– Listen without judging

– Validate the teen’’s grief responses

– Groups are helpful – teens listen to other teens

– Provide a consistent environment

– Facilitate both peer and adult support

– Include the teen in plans and rituals

– Answer questions directly and honestly; be truthful and factual

– Give them reassurance about the future

– Create time to talk about families

– Allow teens to make informed choices

– Accept that they will experience mood swings and physical symptoms

– Encourage them to honestly recognize their painful feelings and find
positive outlets in physical and creative activities

– Listen for the feelings behind their words and actions and respond with
empathy.

– Help them develop and maintain their sense of identity

– Monitor for thoughts of self harm related to feelings of hopelessness and
helplessness

Myths about Children and Grief

1. Children do not grieve.

Children of all ages grieve. The child’s development and experiences
affects the grieving process.

2. The death of a loved one is the only major loss children and
adolescents experience.

Young people experience a variety of losses.  These include losses of pets, separations caused by divorce or relocations, losses of friends and relationships, as well as losses due to illness or death.  All of these losses generate grief.

3.      Children should be shielded from loss.

It’s impossible to protect children from loss.  Adults can teach ways of adapting to loss by including young people in the grieving process.

4.      Children should not go to funerals OR Children should always
attend funerals.

Allow young people to make their own choice. They should decide how they wish to participate in funerals or other services. Adults must provide information, options and support.

5.      Children get over loss quickly.

No one gets over significant loss. Children, like adults, will learn to live with the loss. They may revisit that loss at different points in their lives and experience grief again.

6.      Children are permanently scarred by loss OR Children are
resilient
.

By providing solid support and strong consistent care, adults can help children cope with loss.

7.      Talking with children and adolescents is the most effective approach in dealing with loss.

Different approaches are helpful to young people. It’s important to talk openly with children and adolescents; it’s also helpful to let young people use creative approaches. Play, art, dance, music, and ritual are all valuable modes of expression that allow them to say what words cannot.

8.      Helping children and adolescents deal with loss is the family’s
responsibility.

Other individuals and organizations can share this responsibility. Hospices, schools, and faith communities can all offer necessary support.