By: Patti Doumany MEd, LPC-S, RPT-S
Children grieve. Many times we witness their mourning through their play and behavior rather than their words. Children have unique responses and needs to loss. In this continuing article I will review the six needs of mourning as outlined by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Transition, dispel some common myths prevalent in our society, and review ways you can help a grieving child.
The first two needs of childhood mourning preciously covered are 1) Acknowledging the reality of death, and 2) Embracing the reality of the loss.
The third need of mourning is: Convert the Relationship From One of Presence to One of Memory. This special need is about helping a child to remember the one who died by encouraging an ongoing relationship with the deceased person through precious memories. This is not a stage, something to do until the child “feels better”, but an ongoing way of embracing the past while living in the present. We don’t stop loving a person because they die. We maintain a bond with our loved ones through our memories. There are many ways to help children with this new relationship. Here are a few examples:
a) create a memory book, b) give the child pictures and keepsakes belonging to the deceased c) visit special places the child went with their loved one d) naturally include their loved one’s name in conversations, c) plant a tree or garden in their loved one’s honor, d) draw a favorite memory, e) write a poem, f) make a memorial stone, g) involve your child in a children’s grief support group h) make a charitable donation, no (matter how small) h) bring flowers to the grave, and i) model expression of your own feelings of grief.
The following are common myths associated with this need of mourning.
- Adults should avoid talking about the deceased love one because it will cause the child pain. When children cry we may feel helpless, vulnerable, or want to protect our children. Some feel crying is a sign of weakness. However, all feelings are expressions of who we are and what we are experiencing in the here and now. There are no right or wrong ways of feeling. By shielding our children we perpetuate a denying of reality, and create a barrier to the grieving process. Dr. Wolfelt calls this denying of reality “living in the shadow of the ghost of grief.”
- Children should not attend funerals. By excluding children from taking part in and/or attending funerals we take away an opportunity for the child to formally say goodbye to their loved one. I counseled an adolescent who was bribed to not go to a grandparent’s funeral when he was 7 years old. The parent’s offered the child a new video game as a reward for not going to the funeral. The child chose the game and suffered remorse for years. For healing to take place, the now adolescent planned and held a memorial service in honor of his grandfather. Until this memorial service took place the child was unable to move toward reconciliation.
For children grief can be complicated and confusing. As caring adults we can teach our children their feelings are not something to be ashamed of. When someone dies we experience many, many, feelings including anger, fear, sadness, and times of happiness. All of these feelings are a natural way of expressing our experience with grief and love for the person who died. Sharing memories through words and activities helps children express their grief and fosters movement toward reconciliation.
Patti Doumany is a child therapist in Frisco, Texas. If you would like to comment on this or future articles, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org