Do Children Experience Grief?

Let’s be honest, grief is one of the last life situations we think about seeing our child experience, or having to talk to them about.

As a parent, it’s normal for many of us to not be ready to have a conversation with our child or adolescent about grief; especially when grief is following the loss of a loved one or a significant other dying. Whatever life situation we find our family going through, children and teens will find grief difficult to deal with and will need to be given the space to grieve in their own unique way. As a parent/guardian, it is important to recognize that all children and teens are different in their understanding of death and dying and that this understanding depends on: if the loss was anticipatory or sudden, if the child or adolescent has suffered other losses of relationship, their developmental level, cognitive skills, personality characteristics, religious/spiritual or cultural beliefs, teachings and influences by parents and significant others (eg. is the family communication patterns more open or closed), input from the media, and any other previous experiences with death. With that said, grieving has a very important function for children, adolescents and adults and grieving can be an opportunity to learn how to accept situations that are out of our control (eg. that a loved one has died) and learn how to heal a broken heart. While in this stage of life, we have the opportunity to learn how to bravely deal with all of the difficult feelings and figure out healthy coping skills to weave into our life to support us on our grief journey.

When you find yourself in this type of situation with your child or teen, allowing them to express the difficult and painful thoughts and feelings commonly associated with grief is one of the first steps in supporting them. Helping them understand that there is no right way or a ‘blueprint’ to move through the grieving process will also help normalize and validate the intense, confusing painful emotions they are dealing with. An environment that fosters open and honest communication offers bereaved children and adolescents a protective factor against unresolved grief in their future because they will be able to express their feelings, resolve any difficult issues, and learn to cope with grief. This is also another way of slowly building resiliency in their character. The healthy coping mechanisms that they learn from their grief journey will hopefully remain with them throughout adulthood and although hard to go through, there are many life long lessons in grief and healing.

The information that follows will contain tips broken down into a range of ages and experiences, and information about what to say, what to look out for and how to help. The considerations will hopefully be helpful in understanding how children and adolescents experience and deal with death.
Infants and Toddlers: Might sense that adults are sad or upset by observing facial features and body language, but have no real understanding of the meaning or significance of death.

Preschoolers and Early Elementary School: Young children may see death as reversible and not a permanent condition. Children that are approximately 5-9 will start to comprehend the finality of death and start to understand that certain circumstances may result in death. At this age, death is perceived as something that happens to others, not to oneself or one’s family. When speaking to this age range, it is important to keep explanations brief and simple.
Middle School and High School: Children and adolescents in middle school have the cognitive understanding to comprehend death as a final event however they are still young enough that they might not fully grasp the abstract concepts discussed by adults. They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions, and their expressions may include acting out or self-injurious behaviors as a means of coping with their intense emotions. Once in high school, most teens will fully grasp the meaning of death. They may seek out friends and family for comfort or they may withdraw to deal with their grief. Teens (as well as some younger children) with a history of depression, suicidal behavior and chemical dependency are at particular risk for prolonged and serious grief reactions and may need more careful attention from home and school during these difficult times.

It is important to understand that grief will come and go and is not something that a child or an adolescent can just “get over” but will hopefully be something they learn to live with, with the right social/emotional support systems in place.  Reading an age-appropriate book on bereavement and grief will help normalize and validate the feelings the child/adolescent is experiencing related to the loss. Taking into consideration your child’s cognition level, telling the truth around the circumstances is also an important factor in supporting their grief and accepting the loss to be finalized so that they are able to move forward. It’s important to be mindful however of how much information is revealed and to make sure to leave out any concepts that might be difficult for them to process due to their developmental stage. Regardless of age, loss and death are both part of the cycle of life and that needs to be communicated to children and teens. Encourage your child or teen to ask questions about loss and death; and be less anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child and teens find his or her own answers. Understand that sometimes children are upset but they cannot tell you what will be helpful. Giving them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you may enable them to sort out their feelings. Listen empathetically and when discussing the death of a loved one, avoid making abstract ("He's passed on"; "He's in the great beyond") or literal ("We've lost her"; "She's no longer with us") statements that a child could misunderstand. Instead, use clear and concrete, but age-appropriate language to minimize confusion. If you find yourself struggling with talking with your child, Grief Counselor and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt suggests the following dialogue that could be used:
" You might take your child on your lap and say, "I have something very sad to tell you. Grandma has died. She's not alive anymore and we won't be able to see her and play with her." Then sit quietly and listen. If the child believes Grandma is in heaven because that is the family’s spiritual belief, then that belief should be validated. If you find your child asking you, “Will you die too?,” a proper response could be, “I will die sometime, but I hope to be here a long time yet.” You can acknowledge and validate their emotions by possibly asking, ”Are you worried that I won’t be here to care for you?”, and see where the conversation moves.”

As a parent/guardian, it is important to:

Memorialize the person who died. Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing. This can be as simple as sharing memories of the person who died or bringing up the name of the person who died so that your child knows it’s not taboo to talk about and remember that person. It is important to keep photos around, too.
Examine your own feelings of stress. Take care of yourself physically, and get the emotional support you need to grieve. Focusing on the children in your care is important, but not at the expense of your emotional needs. It is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that with time you will adjust to the families new normal while acknowledging that things might not be the same but with time, will eventually get better.
Maintain a normal routine but expect that children may have a harder time with homework, chores and bedtime and might need extra attention and support.
Observe the child’s emotional reactions. Look for changes in behavior, sleep and eating patterns. Keep in mind that children frequently express emotions through their behavior, not their words.
Let the school social worker know if your child is experiencing stress. The school can provide additional emotional resources.
Seek out a professional grief counselor or mental health and/or medical clinician’s help if any of the physical, emotional or cognitive reactions described above continue for any significant period, become debilitating for the child and/or the family, or have adverse effects on school performance, peer relationships, achieving developmental milestones, etc.

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