Grieving Children – Reflections and resources

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.

The Response

The Response of Fear

Your surviving children may develop fears related to the death of a sibling. If illness was a factor, the surviving child may fear illness. If your child died in a hospital setting, the surviving children may come to see hospitals as a place they would rather not go. This fear may even carry over to medical personnel. The surviving sibling may develop a fear of another imminent death, for example, that a parent might die or another sibling. With all of these fears, assurances and explanations are in order. Finally, a child may develop a fear of death itself and what lies beyond. This is a common fear, even for adults, and may require reexamination and discussion of your own beliefs.

The response of indifference

Many prefer a certain detachment from the family’s grief. It may be, especially if they are older children, that they are practiced in keeping their feelings inside. Although your example of openness may help children express themselves, the showing of grief cannot be forced. Besides, their relationship to the child who died was much different than yours. A peer support group may be helpful.

The response of misbehavior

Children may provoke parents to get the punishment they think they deserve (see above regarding guilt). Or they may simply be seeking attention from a withdrawn parent. Or they may be taking advantage of a parent’s more lenient attitude. Having lost a child, parents may change their approach to the surviving children, pampering them and tolerating misbehavior. The best approach is to show love and support but also firmness.

The response of depression

Children who are depressed show a definite shift from their usual behavior. They may be withdrawn, keeping to themselves in their room. Appetite may decrease. Concentration may be more difficult, and schoolwork may suffer. They may seem tired, even lazy, and sleep patterns may change. If depression is prolonged, professional counseling is to be encouraged.

The response of guilt

Anger directed toward oneself sometimes produces feelings of guilt. Such feelings in surviving children can be the most enduring, harmful reaction to a sibling’s death. The background is normal sibling rivalry. Relationships between brothers and sisters typically involve some competition, jealousy, or vying for position. Often there is hostility, even an “I wish he were dead” feeling. Younger children, especially those under 8 years of age, may think that such a thought killed their brother or sister.

Children who harbor guilt feelings are in a bind. They cannot let anyone know because they feel that will reinforce their guilt and lead to punishment. So they try to live with it and then develop other problems. They may think that they should have died instead of or in addition to their sibling. They may think they don’t deserve to enjoy anything. They may actually seek punishment. They may even think of suicide. Such feelings may continue for years, all because the imagined guilt has not been resolved. Parents can help to get guilt problems to the surface by gentle questioning. If there is reason to believe it persists, professional counseling is needed.

Occasionally there may be a problem of more rational guilt. Perhaps an older child didn’t watch over a younger child well enough, and there was a fatal accident. Parents may have the same problem. In these cases everyone needs to remember that:

  1. the death was in no way intentional,
  2. everyone is imperfect and inclined to make mistakes, and
  3. forgiving oneself is a goal to work toward.

Continually blaming ourselves will only keep us from working through our guilt and going on with our lives. In addition, blaming ourselves benefits no one and is, in fact, destructive to ourselves and our families. A sense of forgiveness by God is also important to many people, and these people should pursue that forgiveness.

The response of bodily distress and behavior problems

Emotions that are not being expressed or resolved often lead to physical symptoms. Children may have headaches, restlessness, and repeated illnesses. Or they may show unusual anger, hostility, and stubbornness. Parents can help these children find ways to express their feelings. Talking our feelings with a close family friend or relative may be easier than with a grieving parent. Physical activity also helps.

The response of anger and blame

Children may be angry at those who treated the deceased child, feeling they should have saved him or her. Or they may be angry at their parents for not having prevented the death. Or at the world in general for not caring. Often the anger will not be expressed, especially if it is toward the parents, because children want to stay on good terms with those close to them.

Unexpressed anger, however, is still anger, and it wants to come out. Often it will come out in strange ways, directed at people not involved in the death. Hostility in general may pop out without warning or provocation. The problem will continue until the true nature of the anger is revealed and discussed. Parents need to encourage its discussion and acceptable expression.

Anger at God is a special case of the same general problem. Both parent and child may feel that someone has to be blamed, and God is a good candidate. If God is good, benevolent, and caring, why did He permit the death? It’s an old question, a natural and normal one, which most religious counselors should be competent to discuss. If you don’t feel you have a good answer for yourself or your children, why not raise the question with your pastor, priest or rabbi? Expressing positive thoughts and feelings about faith in God could also encourage your child’s faith.

The response of anxiety

A family in grief is turned upside down, and some of the developments may be disturbing to children. Are Mom and Dad not getting along? Is the grief not out in the open? Are blame and guilt the main themes? For their own sakes as well as for their children, parents need to work through their grief.

The response of sadness

Like adults, children may feel intense sadness and loneliness. Unlike adults, the sadness may come and go in shorter periods and may not last as long. And their feelings may be harder for them to understand. Encourage children to do something with their feelings of sadness – talking, mounting photos, writing, or other projects in memory of the sibling. Sadness can turn gradually into healthy memories.

The response of denial

The sudden reality of a death is too much for parents to accept all at once. So it might be for a child. Refusing to accept the death is common, especially at first. This is a helpful, natural response that in time will lessen and fade.

Typical Responses of Siblings

This is taken from a brochure written by Marcia G. Scherago, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., published by Medic Publishing, and distributed by the Centering Corporation.

Certain responses to the death of a brother or sister are common. Being aware of these responses will help you to be sympathetic and perhaps also will help the child work through his or her feelings.

  • The response of denial.
  • The response of sadness.
  • The response of anxiety.
  • The response of bodily distress and behavior problems.
  • The response of anger and blame.
  • The response of guilt.
  • The response of depression.
  • The response of misbehavior.
  • The response of indifference.
  • The response of fear.

Guidelines for Parents

Suggestions of What is Helpful and Not Helpful

This is taken from a brochure written by Marcia G. Scherago, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., published by Medic Publishing, and distributed by the Centering Corporation.

Helpful:

  1. Taking care of yourself physically.
  2. Working on your own grief
  3. Dealing with your own feelings of guilt and blame
  4. Allow surviving children their own method of grieving
  5. Getting help for your children if needed
  6. Finding healthy ways to remember your child
  7. Finding a way to spend time with the surviving children
  8. Giving your children space

Not Helpful:

  1. Using trite sayings
  2. Idealizing your dead child
  3. Comparing the dead child to surviving children
  4. Attempting to replace the dead child with the surviving children

10 Myths About Children & Grief

Myth #1: Grief and mourning are the same experience.

Have you ever noticed how people tend to use the words “grief” and “mourning” synonymously? Many people are unaware that there is an important distinction between grief and mourning. This distinction is particularly important when working with and learning from bereaved children.

More simply stated, grief represents the thoughts and feelings that are experienced within the child when they have a relationship with someone who dies. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of bereavement.

Mourning means taking the internal experience of grief and expressing it outside of oneself. Another way of defining mourning is to state that it is “grief gone public” or “sharing one’s grief outside of oneself.” Of course, bereaved children mourn more through their behaviors than they do through words.

We often refer to children as “forgotten mourners.” Why? Because they do grieve – the question is: do we create conditions that allow them to mourn? Only when we as caring adults encourage children to mourn, do we become catalysts for healing.

We have learned that children move toward healing not by just grieving, but through mourning. We must help children not just grieve inside themselves, but also mourn outside themselves.

 

Myth #2 – A child’s grief and mourning is short in duration.

Many adults simply do not understand that grief and mourning is a process, not just an event. Those adults who want the bereaved child to “hurry up” and “get over it” usually project that the child needs to be “strong” and stoic.

Of course, who are these adults really protecting?

The obvious answer is themselves. Why? Because if they can assume the child’s grief and mourning is short in duration, they don’t have to walk with them and encounter the pain of the loss.

I (the article’s author) continue to read in professional texts comments like, “If the child’s symptoms persist past six months, they should be referred for professional assistance.” Inherent in this quote is that something is “wrong” with the child. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. This period around six months after the death is when it is not unusual to see some more of the visible signs of outward mourning, which is healthy, and is moving the child toward healing.

John Bowlby and other investigators demonstrated years ago that children’s mourning behavior is anything but short in duration. It is easy for many adults to mistake an apparent lack of feelings as evidence that children are “over” grief or are incapable of mourning. In reality, these children are simple protecting themselves from the initial hurt of the loss in the only way they know how.

Myth #3: There is a predictable and orderly stage-like progression to the child’s experience of grief and mourning.

Have you ever heard a well-meaning, misinformed adult say something like, “That child is in stage two.” Well, if it were only that simple! Somehow the “stages of grief” have helped people try to make sense out of an experience that isn’t orderly or predictable as we would like it to be.

The concept of “stages” was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ landmark text “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross never intended that people should interpret her “five stages of dying” literally. However, many people have done just that, not only with the process of dying, but with the process of bereavement, grief, and mourning as well.

Some well-intended adults adopt a rigid system of stage-like beliefs about children’s grief and mourning experiences. Yet, no two children are alike. As caring adults, we only get ourselves in trouble when we try to prescribe what a child’s grief and mourning experiences should be.

Instead of a prescriptive approach, in my (the article’s author’s) experience, an attitude that allows the child to be the true expert is: “Teach me about your grief, and I will be with you. As you teach me, I will follow the lead you provide and attempt to be a stabilizing and empathetic presence.”

To think that one’s goal is to move children through the stages of grief would be a misuse of counsel. A variety of unique thoughts, feelings, and behaviors will be experienced as part of the healing process. We must remind ourselves to not prescribe how children should grieve and mourn, but allow them to teach us where they are in the process.

Have you ever heard a well-meaning, misinformed adult say something like, “That child is in stage two.” Well, if it were only that simple! Somehow the “stages of grief” have helped people try to make sense out of an experience that isn’t orderly or predictable as we would like it to be.

The concept of “stages” was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ landmark text “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross never intended that people should interpret her “five stages of dying” literally. However, many people have done just that, not only with the process of dying, but with the process of bereavement, grief, and mourning as well.

Some well-intended adults adopt a rigid system of stage-like beliefs about children’s grief and mourning experiences. Yet, no two children are alike. As caring adults, we only get ourselves in trouble when we try to prescribe what a child’s grief and mourning experiences should be.

Instead of a prescriptive approach, in my (the article’s author’s) experience, an attitude that allows the child to be the true expert is: “Teach me about your grief, and I will be with you. As you teach me, I will follow the lead you provide and attempt to be a stabilizing and empathetic presence.”

To think that one’s goal is to move children through the stages of grief would be a misuse of counsel. A variety of unique thoughts, feelings, and behaviors will be experienced as part of the healing process. We must remind ourselves to not prescribe how children should grieve and mourn, but allow them to teach us where they are in the process.

 

Myth #4: Infants and toddlers are too young to grieve and mourn.

In my (the article’s author’s) experience, any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve and mourn. Toddlers and infants are certainly capable of giving and receiving love. Of course, how many times have you heard, “They’re too young to understand”?

While infants and toddlers cannot verbally teach us about their grief, if we pay attention, we will note that they protest the loss in a variety of ways. A few practical examples are regressive behavior, sleep disturbances, and explosive emotions. I see children as young as eighteen months old in my practice.

John Bowlby’s research has taught us how even babies will protest when threatened with separation, death, or abandonment. No doubt, we need more research with this young population. However, it is clear to me in my work that we should not assume that infants and toddlers are too young to grieve and mourn.

Unless we support and nurture these young children when they are confronted with the loss of a primary relationship, they can potentially develop a lack of trust in the world around them. By providing both verbal and non-verbal support, we can and should be certain that adequate maternal and paternal care is provided to bereaved infants and toddlers. Holding, hugging, and playing with them are primary ways in which we can attempt to help these lovely children.

We can also serve as support to the parents of bereaved children in teaching them about those ways of helping. In doing so, I truly believe we are doing preventative mental health care.

 

Myth #5: The grief and mourning of adults surrounding bereaved children doesn’t have any impact on them

Many adults attempt to conceal their own grief and mourning from bereaved children. While these adults are well-intentioned, they are also misinformed. Modeling is a primary way in which children learn.

My (the article’s author’s) experience has taught me that the significant adults in children’s lives are the most important factor in allowing and encouraging children to mourn. If adults deny their own grief, they teach children around them to do the very same thing.

When Mom or Dad is sad, children can learn that it doesn’t mean that it is their fault. However, if they don’t learn this, they will often assume they are responsible for the emotional environment of the household. When bereaved children can acknowledge that adults around them are sad, and that it isn’t their fault, then they can become free to express their own wide range of emotions, including sadness.

One of the most loving things we can do as bereaved adults is allow ourselves to mourn. With our own capacity to love comes our own necessity to mourn. The first step in helping bereaved children is to help ourselves. We help ourselves by permitting the open expression of our own life hurts!

 

Myth #6: The trauma of childhood bereavement always leads to a maladjusted adult life.

Since the 1930s, numerous studies have attempted to establish relationships between childhood bereavement and later adult “mental illness” (depression, psychosis, sociopathic behavior). While a number of clinicians and researchers have tried to demonstrate this relationship, more recent critical reviews of the research literature have questioned the results. Why? Because there seems to have been a number of methodological problems with the studies. Numerous studies failed to control for such influences as social class, age of parents, and nature of the emotional relationship between the child and the parent that died. Retrospective research has not been able to evolve a definite answer to the question of whether early childhood bereavement (most studies have focused on death of a parent) is able to predict the later onset of mental health problems.

While many studies that attempt to make the above link have been rejected, some well-meaning, misinformed people perpetuate this myth. You may have witnessed this when you see adults approach bereaved children with a patronizing attitude that projects the following, “You poor child, you will be forever maimed by this experience.”

These more recent critical reviews of the literature suggest to keen observers that the death of a parent is not necessarily a determinant of later mental health problems. Interestingly, a study by Rutter on maternal deprivation has suggested that psychopathology is not necessarily linked to the parent-child bond, but instead to the lack of bonding initially.

My (the article’s author’s) own clinical experience has resulted in a personal bias on this important issue. I believe the quality of care provided to bereaved children as they are helped to do the work of mourning is a major influence on their healing, or rather what I have termed “reconciliation.”

In sum, do not assume that because a child experiences the death of someone that they will have a maladjusted adult life. Instead, work to create societal and familial environments that help them participate in the work of mourning and go on to live meaningful lives!

 

Myth #7: Children are better off if they don’t attend funerals

The unfortunate reality is that many adults firmly believe in this myth. The result is that many children are denied the opportunity to confront the reality of the death with the support of loving adults.

Adults who have internalized this myth create an environment that moves children away from grief and mourning prematurely. The funeral provides a structural way of allowing and encouraging both adults and children to comfort each other, openly mourn and honor the life of the person who has died.

Since the funeral is a significant event, children should have the same opportunity to attend as any other member of the family. They should be encouraged to attend, but never forced.

I (the article’s author) emphasize the word “encouraged” because some children are anxious when experiencing anything unknown to them. Through gentle encouragement, loving adults can help bereaved children know they will be supported during this naturally sad and frightening time in their young lives. The funeral can even provide an opportunity for children to express their unique relationship with the person who has died by including a ritual of their own during the services.

Myth #8: Children who express tears are being “weak” and harming themselves in the long run.

An important way in which children learn is through the modeling of a primary caregiver. If bereaved children are in an environment where adults are living out this myth, they will often follow suit.

Children may repress their tears either because they have internalized adult demands for repressing feelings, or they have identified with how the adults surrounding them repress their own tears. Unfortunately, many adults associate tears of grief with personal inadequacy and weakness. Crying on the part of bereaved children often generates feelings of helplessness in adults. Out of a wish to protect the children (and themselves) from pain, well-meaning, misinformed adults often directly inhibit the experience of tears. Comments similar to, “You need to be strong for your mother,” or “Tears won’t bring him back,” and “He wouldn’t want you to cry,” discourage the expression of tears. Yet crying is nature’s way of releasing internal tension in the body and allows the child to communicate a need to be comforted.

Another purpose of crying is postulated in the context of attachment theory, where in tears are intended to bring about reunion with the person who has died. While reunion cannot occur, crying is thought to be biologically based and a normal way of attempting to reconnect with the person who has died. The frequency and intensity of crying eventually wanes as the hoped-for reunion does not occur.

The expression of tears is not a sign of weakness in adults or children. The capacity of bereaved children to share tears is an indication of their willingness to do the “work of mourning.” As loving adults we can better assist children by modeling our own expression of tears.

 

Myth #9: Adults should be able to instantly teach children about religion and death.

Perhaps you have heard an adult say, “I’ll just tell them he’s gone to Heaven and that will take care of it.” If only it were that simple! As one eight-year-old girl said, “If Grandpa is in Heaven, why did we put him in the ground?” Teaching abstract religious and spiritual concepts is no easy task. Children’s capacity to understand will grow with them as they mature.

While we can only teach what we believe, be careful not to expect too much of yourself in this important area. A challenging adult responsibility is to clarify for children abstract ideas about death. Such ideas are often misused to avoid providing explanations about the nature of the death or to deny feelings. Religious and spiritual belief systems can be sustaining, but children’s capacity to assimilate their beliefs over time must be respected. The child need not, and often cannot, understand the total religious philosophy of adults around them.

Whatever the specific beliefs of the family, the child must be helped to understand that the person has died and cannot come back. A sometimes witnessed misuse of religion is to suggest that children need not mourn because the person who died “is in a better place anyway.”

To discourage children from mourning in this way can set them up for a multitude of complications on their continued living. In sum, caring adults need not feel guilty or ashamed if they cannot give specific definitions of God and Heaven, or what happens after death. Openness to mystery is valuable not only in teaching about death, but in teaching about life!

 

Myth #10: The goal in helping bereaved children is to “get them over” grief and mourning.

We have all probably had the experience of hearing an adult talk about a bereaved child in the following way: “Shouldn’t she be over it by now? I think it’s been over a year.” To think that we as human beings, adults or children, “get over” grief is ludicrous!

Adults who have internalized this myth often lose the most important quality of an effective caregiver – the loss of patience. Why? Because they are always trying to get the child “over it.” Children don’t overcome grief, they live with it and work to “reconcile” themselves to it.

As the child participates in the work of mourning, a natural realization follows that life will be different without the presence of the person who has died. Hope for a continued life emerges as the child is able to make commitments to the future, realizing the dead person will never be forgotten, yet knowing that one’s life can and will move forward.
No, children do not get over grief, but instead they become reconciled to it. Those people who think the goal is to “resolve” bereaved children’s grief become destructive to the healing process.

Ten Ways to Help Grieving Children

  1. Take care of you — Exercise, eat well-balanced meals, stick to regular routines and reach out to others for support. These activities might be difficult when you are grieving, but taking care of yourself is still important. Grieving children do better when they have a healthy adult providing support and understanding to them.
  2. Be honest with your child — Discuss the tragic event with your child in a simple, direct and age appropriate manner. Be honest and share clear, accurate information about what happened. Children need to hear the truth from someone they love.
  3. Listen — Listen to your child share his or her story about what happened. Let them ask you questions and answer their questions as best as you can. Do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
  4. Acknowledge your child’s grief — recognize that your child is grieving. Be careful not to impose your grief on your child, but allow him or her to grieve in his or her own way. It is normal for children to feel an array of emotions, including sadness, anger, frustration and fear. It is also normal for children to move in and out of grief reactions, at times being very upset or getting angry easily and at other times playing as if nothing has happened. If you are not sure how grief is impacting your child, spend time with them playing, coloring, drawing or sharing stories. Quite often children will give you clues to their grief through these activities.
  5. Share — Tell your child stories about your own life. Times you were afraid, sad or angry. Tell them how you dealt with these situations and what you learned. Children love to hear stories about the adults in their lives and when those adults were children. Sharing stories helps a child normalize what he or she is experiencing.
  6. Be creative — Give your child a creative outlet to express feelings. This can be done through drawing, writing, doing crafts, listening to music, or playing games.
  7. Maintain clear expectations — Keep rules and boundaries consistent. Children gain security when they know what is expected from them. Children will often use their pain as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. While you should always acknowledge the grief your child is experiencing, you should also teach them to be accountable for their choices, no matter how they feel.
  8. Reassure your child — Remind your child that he or she is loved and that you are there for him or her. Following the death of a person in his or her life, a child’s sense of safety can be shaken. Children often fear that you or other people in their life might die. While you cannot promise that you or others will not die, you can let your child know the plan if such an event occurs.
  9. Create rituals and new family traditions — Rituals can give your family tangible ways to acknowledge your grief and honor the memory of those who have died. Lighting candles, recognizing special occasions, sharing stories about those who have died or volunteering with a local charity as a family are some of the ways you can incorporate new traditions or rituals.
  10. Be patient — You and your child are grieving and the most intense parts of grief often take longer than we might want. Grief also changes us in many ways. So, be patient as you and your child experience your grief. Be patient with your child with repetition. A child often has to come back to the same details and questions. Patiently spend time with your child as they (and you) grow, change and continue to construct their (your) life story.

 

Provided by NAGC member The Amelia Center, www.ameliacenter.org