CHILDREN AND GRIEF: 4th in a 7 PART SERIES
By: Patti Doumany, MEd, LPC-S, RPT-S
There are many circumstances influencing a child’s unique response to the death of a loved one. The nature of the death, the child’s attachment to the deceased, the availability of a consistent support system, the child’s perception of the death, the family’s ability to express intense feelings, and other crises or stresses in the child’s life all frame the child’s experience. Grief becomes complicated in situations such as violent death, suicide, sudden traumatic death, multiple losses, and the loss of a primary caretaker. In such cases the child may have an especially difficult time with the first need of mourning, acknowledging the reality of the death. When mourning is discouraged children may respond to their emotional needs by expression of physical complaints. School nurses often see these children. They repeatedly show up in the nurse’s office complaining of stomach and headaches. While not all of these children have experienced a death, they are often times children from “closed homes” in which open expression of anger and sadness is discouraged.
The first three central needs of mourning, as outlined by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, are, 1) acknowledging the reality of death, 2) embracing the reality of the loss by moving toward pain, and 3) converting the relationship from one of presence to one of memory. The fourth need of mourning is: Developing a New Self-Identity.
Children are especially impacted with the task of developing a new self-identity. When someone important to us dies, we mourn not only the loss of that person, but also who we were when we were with that person. Who am I now? becomes a major crisis that may surpass all other concerns for weeks or months. Unfortunately, many children struggle single-handedly with changes of self-identity. They are encouraged to change their identity to one of super humanness at a time when all of their abilities to cope are strained. This can be witnessed in well meaning phrases such as, “Now you have to be the man of the house.” or, “You need to take care of your mommy, sister, brother, etc.” These statements can be damaging to a suffering child who is feeling lost and alone.
Early on in grief children often exhibit regressive behaviors. This is almost always true in traumatic situations, but often holds true as a normal grieving response. Some common regressive behaviors in young children are bed-wetting, thumb sucking, separation anxiety, increased dependency, and fearfulness. Older children will experience this regression as pervasive feelings of a loss of control with feelings of helplessness, frustration, and perceived inadequacies. This is a child’s natural way of dealing with this need of mourning.
The following are suggestions to help a child with this essential need of mourning.
- “Be with” the child. “Being with” means to be available to listen with your ears, eyes, and your heart to a child’s experience of loss without a goal of the child “getting over” the loss. Become a companion, not a guide to your child’s grief
- Provide transitional objects that belonged to the deceased. (Dad’s favorite pocket watch, a picture of grandma)
- Maintain a predictable daily routine if possible. Structure reduces anxiety by providing a sense of security and stability.
- Set realistic goals for the child’s school performance. Soften expectations with respect, kindness, and understanding. Grief causes difficulty in concentrating.
- Provide a quiet private place when your child needs to be alone.
- Understand that changes that naturally occur after a death (moving, change in care taking, one less plate at the dinner table) will impact your child.
- Understand that children move in and out of grief. Almost anything may trigger a grief reaction. Children do not hurt any less because of their age or developmental understanding of death. Even infants grieve.
- Understand that children will continue to deal with changes in self-identity as they grow. Life will not get back to normal. Instead, over time, a new normal will develop.
- Talk openly about the person who died.
- Use activities to help your child to express changes in self-identity.Make a list of changes experienced in a day, week, month, year and lifetime.Fold a large piece of paper in half. You and your child can draw a picture of the way life was before the person died and a picture of how life is now.
We cannot take away our children’s pain, but we can walk beside our children as they experience the joys and pains of life. We show children our unconditional love by giving them the gift of our accepting presence. I am here, and I care are powerful messages of healing.