A Season of Change
The Grieving Period for a Child
Grief is a natural response to loss that takes an emotional, physical, mental and spiritual toll. Everyone experiences it at some point in life – even children. However, there is no universal or “correct” way to grieve. Every child responds differently. “It depends on his relationship with the deceased and what developmental stage [the child] is in,” said Linn Kuhnel, social worker at Hospice of Green County. Other factors include whether the child had an opportunity to prepare and whether the lifestyle of the loved one changed over time. “If we are speaking about grandma,” Kuhnel said, “she may have gone from being active and always attending school functions and games to all of a sudden being sick and home-bound, so the relationship changed.”
Parents can be aware of the ways that their children have been introduced to death and act accordingly. “Children are introduced to the concept of death at a very early age in the media, nature, movies and religious teachings,” said Alissa Drescher, grief counselor at Tristesse Grief Center. Try to keep information about the situation developmentally appropriate but do not pretend a loss did not occur. “If children are not given information, they will likely fill in the gaps themselves and often their version of what has happened is worse than reality,” Drescher said.
In addition, parents should not be afraid to share their emotions and let a child know it is normal to be sad. “If you try to hide your emotions and shield your child, it does not prepare him,” Kuhnel said.
While sharing emotions can be healthy, present the situation to children in a way that is appropriate and that they will understand. “Avoid the idea that someone is sick and will die, because we all get sick,” Kuhnel said. Make connections cautiously. “Talk about a body not working any more and be specific about language.” Open communication allows children to feel comfortable enough to engage. “The younger you are,” she said, “just as with most things, the more resilient you are, so you may grieve one moment and not the next and teeter back and forth; whereas, older kids may encounter problems in school and have difficulty coping.”
Parents can also be prepared for some children to be more inquisitive than others. “Just because a child is not actively asking questions does not mean he is not thinking about the death,” Drescher said. “Kids who have experienced a death need an additional dose of reassurance that their needs will be met and may ask where the loved one is now and if they are okay.”
Young children may benefit from art or play therapy to work through their emotions. “Art therapy can help in figuring out what the child knows, where it is hurting and what that picture looks like to him,” Kuhnel said.
Another way to help a child is to give her a feeling of control. “Children should at least be given the opportunity, without being pressured, to choose the level to which they would like to participate in funeral and memorial activities,” Drescher said, “because additional harm can be done if a child feels he has been left out of the process, that his relationship with the deceased has been violated or that adults were not honest with him.”
Children who do attend a funeral should be accompanied by a parent or another adult who can offer support. “Providing alternative activities and a quiet place can be helpful when and if the child appears overwhelmed,” Drescher added.
Consider reading age-appropriate stories centered on loss, creating a memory book or journaling. Some children benefit from group or individual counseling because it helps normalize grief while connecting with peers who went through a similar experience. “Research indicates that kids who are given the opportunity to express their grief fair better than those who are not,” Drescher said.
Experts reiterate that grief can come and go over time. “An adolescent child who lost a mother or father will experience a loss that is very great and lifelong,” Kuhnel said. “Not to say he will not adapt, but as he reaches different milestones, that emptiness will be brought to the forefront repeatedly like the person is not there for his graduation, sixteenth birthday or marriage.”
Parents also should watch for signs that their child is coping in an unhealthy way. “Signs of complicated grief in children include increased acting out, substance abuse, risky behavior, decreased school performance and social isolation,” Drescher said.
Remember that as long as children find healthy ways to cope and caring adults are there to support them, time is the best healer. “Keep communication opportunities open, accept your child for his grief and do not put timelines on it,” Kuhnel said. “Someone dies and you go on your four days of bereavement leave and then are supposed to come back to work with a stiff upper lip and move on and it does not work like that, and it does not work like that for a child either.”