Grief can be a complex and difficult topic to discuss. Grief describes the complex and intricate physical, mental and behavioural response by those who experience profound loss, transitions and death. Just like adults, children can deeply experience loss and change. The experience of grief in both children and adult can occur when loss is experienced whether that be a person, a place, an object or an experience. For children there are numerous reasons to why grief can be triggered. These are not limited to:
- A death of a person family or pet,
- Separation/break up of parents and family
- Change of schools or moving house
- Loss of a friendship
- Geographical relocation
- Having a disability or medical illness
- Having a family or friend in hospital or away for a long time
Grieving is a normal response to loss. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor is there a beginning, middle or end to grief. Unfortunately, part of being a human being means we all go through an experience of loss and grief, it is fundamental to human life. Grief can be defined as the response to the loss in all of its totality – including its physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual manifestations – and as a natural and normal reaction to loss. The experience of loss can often shake up our sense of self and understanding and beliefs about life. It often sets in motion the process of re-learning our understanding of the world and ourselves. Sometimes this means going into the darkness, looking for meaning in the wake of a loss. Research conducted on grief has changed formation over the last few decades. It has gone from a rigid view of grief being predictable, that moves through a standardised emotional trajectory to the more complex and deeper understanding of grief being complicated with multiple trajectories. Research into this field has shown that fundamentally the single most important aspect that allows the pull of grief to lighten and transform is the importance of reconstruction of meaning within the bereaved person’s life. There is also growing research to support the idea that the experience of loss can also provide the possibility of life-enhancing 'post-traumatic growth' as one integrates the lessons of loss and resilience with new meaning into a new forged sense of self and life. The question then becomes, how do we support children who experience loss and grief.
How parents, carers and adults can support children experiencing grief
It is not uncommon for children to have delayed reactions to grief. At this time children need lots of support and reassurance that there is a bigger, wiser, stronger adult there to support them. While the experience of grief is normal, it can provoke intense sadness, anxiety and anger. These intense emotions can be experienced for a prolonged period of time, which can be distressing to experience for adults let alone children. Here are some steps to support children. They learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them, and rely on adults to provide them with what they need to support them in their grief.
Acknowledge the child’s emotions and your own:
Children mirror and model adults, especially parent/guardian figure. If we are telling our children its ok to grieve, to feel and experience their emotions yet we are hiding our own they may feel the need to be ‘strong’ and bottle up their own experience. The best thing is to grieve as fully as you can, so that they can see you grieve - and understand that it’s ok to be sad, angry or cry. In the same way, the more you can talk about it with them, the more they will feel able to talk about it. Acknowledging emotions is as simple as noticing what your child is doing and link this experience to an emotion and then validate that emotional experience through your own validation of your experience e.g., I can see you are spending a lot of time in your room, I wonder if you are feeling sad because you miss Dad. I miss Dad too. Sometimes I just feel like going into my room.
An adult’s natural instinct is to protect and hide children from the harsh realities of life. It is important to know that children have more resources than we think, especially around resilience and coping with the realities of life, as long as we tell them in age appropriate ways. Honesty is really important in death and bereavement; the hardest and saddest truth is better than a child who is confused and uncertain. When children are left in the dark they tend to answer their own confusion and uncertainty through fantasies which can lead to prolonged and complicated grief. Even when very young, is to acknowledge what has happened and give them an explanation. Children not old enough to talk will still pick up on what adults are saying but be confused and frightened by the bits they do not understand. Keep it very simple. Keep the language simple and age appropriate. Informing your child’s school or nursery is important, sometime sharing the language and words being used with your child can be important to share as well. If you don’t feel comfortable broaching the subject with your child there are many great books that support explaining death and loss to children of all ages (see a few examples at the end of the article in further reading)
Often loss and grief can create disruption in routines and daily living. Creating and maintaining regularity for a child through routine will reduce more change, instability and confusion and inform more consistency, reliability and stability for your child. Stability is integral when a child is feeling out of control.
Get your own support
Our own experience can make supporting children more complicated. As mentioned earlier children mirror adults. In order for our child to be ok, it’s important that we are ok and that we are being supported. It can be helpful to seek support to help you through your own grief, whether from friends, family or a professional.
Normal signs of grief in children
Children, just like adults can react to grief in different ways. Some signs and symptoms of difficulty with grief include:
- Symptoms similar to anxiety – shortness of breath, tummy aches, avoidance of places and people
- Nightmares or bad dreams
- Unsettled emotions and difficulty settling
- Loss of motivation
- Loss of interest in things that there was once interest
- Behaviour regression can also occur where children act younger than they are e.g., baby talk, bed wetting or even thumb sucking
It’s important to know that counselling is not unusual for children who are experiencing loss and grief. Seeking support is a helpful and important process for both children and adults. Having a third person who is not emotionally attached to the event can support processing emotions, developing insight and moving through grief with less confusion.
Grief Resources & Further Reading
Sesame Street Grief Support- videos and resources for supporting young children
Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You - children's picture book by Nancy Tillman.
Written to give children a sense of confidence that there is nowhere in the world their parent's love can’t find them
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death - children's picture book by Laurene Krasny Brown, illustrated by Marc Brown
An excellent resource for children when they try to grasp the concept of death and understand grieving, recommended for children who have faced or are facing loss, but also for any child even before an urgent need presents itself.
About the Author
Jaimie Bloch is a leading Child Clinical Psychologist, Behavioural Specialist, Researcher and Program Developer. An expert behavioural consultant, Jaimie has spent years studying and perfecting her craft with a Bachelor of Psychological Science, a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours), a Graduate Diploma of Professional Psychology and a Masters of Psychology (Clinical). Jaimie uses her flair for creativity to encompass both holistic and evidence based approaches when developing comprehensive intervention plans, and setting up support systems for individuals and families. She enjoys teaching, researching, developing programs and writing articles that meld Western Psychology, Philosophy, Human Social Psychology and the neuroscience behind the brain. Jaimie is also the Clinical Director of the leading child, adolescent and family mental health practice, MindMovers Psychology based in Double Bay, Sydney.
For more information about MindMovers Psychology, located at 3/1a Knox Lane, Double Bay, visit their website or call (02) 9328 1081.