By Sheri Khan, LPC
Not surprisingly, the impact of grief is hard on both adults and children. When a child loses a loved one for a myriad of different reasons – death, incarceration, or divorce to name a few – the loss may have a profound effect on the rest of his or her life.
Children express grief differently from adults. Generally speaking, children tend to move in and out of intense feeling rather than sustaining high levels of specific emotions for long durations. We may see a grieving child laughing and playing and think that the child’s grief is over. This misperception may limit our ability to support a grieving child.
How do children understand death?
Loss, death, and grieving can be difficult concepts for children to grasp. They struggle with ideas such as the inevitability and irreversibility of death. They may also struggle with understanding what they believe happens after death since they are not only developing cognitively and emotionally but also socially and spiritually. At a young age most children tend to perceive death through their own perspective. With time and maturity, they typically become more emphatic as their beliefs develop.
How do children grieve?
Just like adults, children experience grief in emotional, spiritual, physical, and cognitive ways. However, since they are still developing and maturing, they are likely to continue to revisit their grief as they gain a better understanding of death. Young children have a short feeling span; as a result their expression of grief may be episodic and intense. Grief can present itself in both aggressive and regressive behavior, sleep disturbances, acting out, and changes in grades.
If the child has experienced the loss of a sibling, he or she is likely to feel duty bound to be of high value to their parents in order to fill the void left by the deceased child.
If the child has experienced the loss of a parent, he or she may be afraid that they will also lose the other parent or someone else who is close to them.
Depending on their age at the time the loss occurred, children may cry initially but afterwards remain dry eyed even when adults around them are teary. As a result most adults make sweeping pronouncements that children are resilient and forget things quite fast. We must realize that children cry a lot on the inside, and their grief may be invisible at first glance. When they do express their grief by shedding tears, they may feel different from their peers, vulnerable and embarrassed. In most cases, they need to convince themselves that life will continue in a positive way in spite of their loss.
How can you support a grieving child?
Grieving children need a lot of understanding and support in order to put them on a path to healing. When the loss is someone close such as a sibling or parent, other people in the family may be too involved in their own grief to offer support to the child. Grief camps, counseling and solid continued support from family and friends are some of the practical approaches to assisting children deal with their feelings of loss.
Most importantly, children need to know that it is okay to talk about death and grief. Adults model healthy behavior by talking about their own feelings and not hiding their emotions. If a child does not want to talk, other techniques can be used to help the child work through the loss.
Encouraging creativity is one such technique. Help the child draw memories of the deceased, write poems, stories, or songs, or write a letter to the one he misses. This helps get the feelings and emotions out instead of keeping them bottled where they will do more harm.
In closing, as an adult who cares about a grieving child, your focus on the child is key. And the fact that you’ve read this far is proof that you are capable and willing to support a grieving child!
Be tuned into her life; be aware and conscious that he is looking to you as the adult to understand what behavior is acceptable. Thank you for being there when he needs you the most.