Children and Grief
By: Patti Doumany, MEd, LPC-S, RPT-S
In Part I you read about a child’s first need of mourning: Acknowledging the Reality of the Death. The journey to healing does not mean forgetting or getting over loved ones. To begin the process of mourning children must first be given honest explanations about death tailored to developmental understanding. It is important that we help children to understand that the person who has died will not be coming back.
Before moving on, I think it is important to clarify the difference between grief and mourning. Grief is our internal experience when someone we care about has died. Our thoughts, our feelings, and the meaning we give to our experience. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Mourning is influenced by our culture. Unfortunately, our culture has moved away from many rituals associated with death. Funerals are shorter. Children are expected to return to school in only a few days after the death of a parent, sibling, or grandparent. They are given messages like “You need to get back to school, so you can keep your mind off of your sadness, or we commend children for being tough. You have probably witnessed this yourself.
The second need of mourning is: Embracing the reality of the loss.
None of wants to endure the intense pain associated with the death of a loved one. It is often easier to avoid, repress, or deny the pain of grief. Because our children are so dear to us, we may want to protect them from experiencing deep sorrow. Our culture encourages us move away from mourning. A common myth associated with this need is it is best to move away from grief instead of toward it. Well meaning friends will tell the child “You need to be strong for mommy,” or, “You are doing so well.” Ironically, doing well with grief means feeling and experiencing loss. In moving our children away from acknowledging their pain, they become isolated in their grief, feel abnormal for their natural feelings, and subsequently prematurely move away from mourning.
Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of hearing people ask of a bereaved person, “Are you over it yet?” Or say things like, “They should be over it by now. It’s been…”
This myth goes something like this: Following the death of someone significant to you, the goal is to “get over” your grief. Reconciliation is a term, which expresses what happens as the person works toward integrating their new reality, moving forward without the person who has died. Reconciliation is a process that cannot be rushed. If the child has met the first need of mourning, acknowledging the reality of the death, they will have a cognitive understanding. This does not imply an integrated healing of the heart and soul. Keep in mind that children do not mourn the same way adults mourn. They are capable of intense emotions even if these emotions are not conveyed. They do not hurt any less because on the surface they may appear to be experiencing less grief than an adult. Children take miniature steps amid their routine day. Sally may be outside playing and laughing, and others presume Sally is no longer affected by the loss of an important person in her life. But watch Sally as later that day she becomes sullen or moody.
Children tend to cope with change by acting out behaviors. All children have individual reactions but some common ones are bodily distress, psychic pain, denial of the person’s death, increased dependency, silence, withdrawal, regression, inability to focus, and poor grades. Signs that infants and toddlers are experiencing stress include uncontrollable crying, rocking back and forth, excessive sleep, and head banging. Signs of stress in Pre-Schoolers include bed-wetting, thumb sucking, clinging to parents, exaggerated fears, uncontrolled crying, and temper tantrums. School age children may frequently whine, become fearful, have nightmares, wet the bed, refuse to eat or overeat, have nervous twitches, daydream, or frequently become sick. Teenagers may show increased stress by aggression, withdrawal, insomnia, excessive sleep, destructive actions, uncontrolled emotions, hypochondria, and depression.
If the family does not openly talk about the deceased, or the family makes statements such as, “You’ll be alright,” or “Don’t think about it,” “Don’t act like a baby.” Children will not feel the freedom or support to mourn. Those who think the goal for a child is to get over a loved one can become destructive to the healing process. In many families tears are considered a sign of weakness, particularly for boys. Boys are especially hit hard if they are taught from an early age to be tough, and pack away feelings that show sensitivity and vulnerability. The expression of tears is not a sign of weakness, but a show of willingness to embrace the reality of the loss.
To help a child move toward this second need of mourning takes courage. A person must be willing to gently walk beside a child (without leading or speeding) as they move into dark and painful sorrow. There can be no attachment to outcome, for closure does not exist. There is however, movement toward reconciliation. Listen, with your heart, observe, and be patient. Sometimes the most meaningful communication you can have with a bereaved child involves silence. Offer an environment of emotional safety. If you are the parent, and your life is filled with busy activities, slow down. Be still, be present. Allow the child to teach you about their experience with grief.