Supporting the Grieving Child
|November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month. Grief affects everyone at some point in their lives, and as much as we wish it is not so, children.
Think back to your first loss. Was it a pet? A grandparent? A parent? A sibling? A best friend? It is very likely that that you remember not only who died, how you were told, what you were told and how you were treated. The first death in any child’s life will set the stage for all deaths in the future. Have you heard adults tell a child, “It was just a fish, bird, pet” etc.? How many times have you said or heard someone say, “the kids are fine… they don’t even understand what is happening.” Nothing could not be further from the truth.
There are so many misconceptions when it comes to children and grief. Many parents and caregivers question whether toddlers can grieve. Therapists say that if a child can love, a child can grieve. Even an infant can sense the emotions of his/her caregiver and can mourn the environment that existed before the death. Children have short attention spans and that greatly impacts their mourning. They are able to take intermittent “breaks” from their grief, and that gives the impression they don’t care or don’t notice. Teenagers are at great risk in grief. When the relationship was troubled or non-existent, grief caused by the death is caused more the loss of hope or possibility (what could have been) than the loss of the person.
Do children grieve differently from adults? Yes and no.
* A need to express grief openly
* A need to have their grief acknowledged by others
* A need for extra support through the grief process
* A need for (re)assurance the death was not their fault
* A need for (re)assurance they are not “going crazy”
A child’s grief is intermittent and sometimes seems to be absent
An adult’s grief: continual awareness and experience of loss
A child’s understanding of death: limited by their age and cognitive development
And adult’s understanding of death: generally more mature in their understanding
A child’s ability to remember the deceased: limited before puberty, may need help remembering
An adult’s ability to remember the deceased: fully developed memories are complete
A child: grows up with the loss, grieves longer
An adult: has already grown up when the death occurs
Children: may talk openly about death
Adults: often have preconceived ideas about how people should respond to death and may not share their feelings as fully and openly as they should
A child: hopefully can depend on a consistent caregiver to meet his or her basic needs
Adult: basic needs can generally be met by self
Adults often feel like they need to have all the answers. They worry and feel uncomfortable when asked about the person who died or the reason for the death. One of the most important things adults and children must understand is that they are NOT there to fix it: they are there to love and support and they don’t need to (and won’t have) all the answers. Honesty is best. One of the best responses to a child who asks about death is, “I don’t know. What do you think?”
Grief expert Alan Wolfelt has coined a fabulous phrase he calls “companioning.” It simply means walking alongside the grieving. That is the best way we can support a bereaved child. Remain open and available. Be patient. Use simple terms. Provide a safe space for the child to talk about the deceased. Maintain routines and consistency. Ask for help for yourself and help for your child. Sometimes you will need to take care of yourself before you can take care of your child.
Remember that a divorce is the death of a family and a child may grieve that loss. The ideas discussed above may also apply in the case of a divorce.