Children Do Grieve
by Lori Worline
Children Do Grieve
Children grieve differently than adults but they do grieve. What may seem normal or abnormal to us may be quite the opposite or at least very different for children. I have seen grief in myself, my extended family, my own children, and my young nieces and nephews. I have seen enough grieving to know it is not only true that children grieve differently but, it's sometimes necessary for children to grieve differently so that they may heal their young hearts.
A young child does not always understand the concept of death or loss. (Kidsaid.com/dougypage.html. Retrieved 12/01/01) Children do not fully grasp the idea that someone is gone and will not be coming back. They may not feel the goneness until the person is not seen for a long period of time as with a divorce, or has died and they never see them again. The child may even miss certain elements of the person such as their voice, expression or even activities that they had experienced but, it may not be directly linked with actually hearing that the person is gone or dead. Children may also mourn the loss of secondary people in their lives such as grandparents, and aunts or uncles, especially if they had spent a lot of time with them.
According to the National Center for Grieving Children and Families http://www.grievingchild.org, children are concrete in their thinking and grieving. They tend to generalize from specific to general, they are repetitive and physical in their grief. As they get older, they begin to understand more of the death and loss concept and begin more abstract thinking. They also grieve cyclically and need choices along the way. Loss affects the way the family functions. A shift in the family structure often takes place. Children then begin to go through various grieving stages.
According to Fitzgerald, The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide, Fitzgerald (1992), in helping children with grief, there are stages children go through in order to heal. These stages are similar and yet different than adult stages of grief.
These stages are:
- Denial or Blocking – Children like to "pretend" something is not happening. They want to believe the loss isn't real and the person will be back soon. This tends to be a state of shock that is temporary. Experiencing a lack of feelings or even playing in the backyard instead of grieving is normal.
- Anger – The emotions of grief are confusing and tend to manifest themselves as anger and disruptive behavior. Children often don't understand what is happening and become insecure and uncomfortable in their surroundings. The response to feeling overwhelmed and insecure is to act out in anger.
- Guilt - Children can feel guilt such as feeling bad about something they may have said in anger. They become fearful that they said something that caused the death or loss. They may also feel a sense of overwhelming regret for not saying things they wish they had said that may have resulted in the loss. They can become depressed or withdrawn as a result of these feelings.
- Depression – This is a feeling that usually occurs after a death or loss. It's important to notice changes such as withdrawal, not eating, sleeping too much, little or no interaction with friends and lack of interest in previous activities. The finality of death in particular does not seem real to children and they need to understand the reality and have a lot more love and attention to overcome their feelings.
- Fears – Children become fearful as they lose a sense of security. What they believed to be true in their lives, no longer is the same and children my become clingy, resort to thumb sucking, bed wetting, talking in baby talk, or even crawling rather than walking. These are normal attempts to try to go back to a safe time in their lives and again feel secure.
- Somatic Reactions – Children may react by saying they do not feel well. They may copy the feelings that a deceased person experienced and become concerned for their parent's health as a result of death.
- Back to a Normal Life – Children begin to finally experience some acceptance and go back to a normal life of school, activities, and friends. These feeling may occur quickly compared to adults. In a child's world, there is no time frame and a death or loss may not cause them to have a long interruption of their daily activities.
It's important to understand that children will vacillate between these stages or may totally miss a stage or it may just not become noticeable. However, helping children to develop strategies in coping with grief is an important aspect of the healing process.
Children cope in different ways. A caregiver, parent, or counselor can be instrumental in helping children cope effectively and prepare them for future losses by allowing children to grieve safely. Children, like anyone else, need to do grief work in order to lead happy, healthy lives.
How we cope with loss determines how healthy we are and how well we continue to live our lives. There are a variety of strategies involved in coping with grief and loss.
Children cope with grief by learning. Helping Children Cope With Grief, Wolfelt, Ph.D. (1983) gives us many strategies that allow us to safely allow children to develop coping skills to prepare them for future loss and grief. In creating a caring relationship, talking about the death, providing parental or caregiver support, creating a safe place for questions and discussions about death, loss or grief, understanding and allowing for grief work to be done, along with several other strategies are helpful techniques in allowing for healthy grieving. Children cope with grief differently at different ages, according to Children and Grief: Big Issues for Little Hearts, Hartnett,(1993). What may seem fine for a ten year old will be different for a two year old toddler. Developmental issues are just a few of the changes children are affected by while grieving. Social and behavioral skills influence the ways in which children grieve and how they cope. The cognitive and psychological phases that adolescents and teenagers go through also present challenges for coping. They may experience physical reactions such as tiredness, headaches, or digestive problems, according to Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers (Grollman, 1993).
However, there are several ways to help children cope and grieve in a healthy manner. The use of art in allowing grief work to is a wonderful way to heal. This form of grieving is using creative energy to heal. There are many forms of art that can be used to grieve. Grief work can be structured and may come in the form of drawing, painting, sculpture, building, metals, etc. Any time a child can create through art they are using energy towards the grieving process. Having available several different mediums through which art can be created such as crayons, colored pencils, pencils, paper, chalk, paints of all types, boxes, anything that can be colored on, anything that can be painted on and used for creating.
Journaling is another form of grief work that allows children to process a loss and continue to live a healthy life. Journaling may take its form in a creative way or an organized manner. It doesn't matter as long as the process belongs to the child, adolescent, or teenager. Provide several different types of materials for writing such as pencils, crayons, pens, gel pens, paint, markers, book journals, papers of different types, colors and sizes.
Play therapy in the form of role playing plays and games (Fitzgerald, 1992, p.124-130) allows children to play out their feelings, thoughts, and fears. Balloons can be used in an exercise for relieving guilt feelings. By writing feeling-words on the balloons and letting the balloons carry away the guilty feelings is helpful and a useful way of helping children work through grief.
Touch therapy (Fitzgerald, 1992, p.138) is a safe way of getting the necessary love and attention. Combined with talking, this may be one of the best tools in helping children deal with their grief. This allows children to begin to trust again and feel the love they need. However, I urge caution in applying this technique as there may be legal ramifications related to physical contact with a child who is not your own.
In conclusion, there are many ways you can help teach children to take care of themselves. By realizing and understanding that they are not the only ones feeling sad, mad, angry, helpless or hopeless can greatly help children deal with their losses. Grief cannot and should not be done alone. Working with others in support groups, with teachers, parents, siblings, friends, can help in the grieving process while healing in healthy ways. Dealing with grief in healthy ways, not suppressing or ignoring it, can lead to a more productive life and is an important process for grief healing.
For more information, here are some links to children and grieving that may be helpful resources.