To many people, the concepts of grief and loss feel scary and are easily pushed aside and ignored.This seems particularly true when it comes to children experiencing loss, since we view grieving as a painful process. Loss, and therefore some level of grieving, however, is often a part of our daily lives. It happens through endings, changes and transitions. It can be the goldfish that died when you were in second grade or the divorce your parents went through when you were 9 years old. As adults we have many changes and transitions — from a new job to a new child.
When we think about it this way, grief and loss become part of the natural process of our lives. Some losses are obviously bigger and have a deeper impact, such as when a loved one dies. As adults, we recognize the impact of such a loss and instinctively want to protect children from this type of experience. Yet our desire to keep children from feeling upset when they have experienced a major loss often increases the sense of confusion and aloneness they might feel in the midst of a tragedy.
As adults, we can assist children through the normal and necessary process of grieving, providing them with support and understanding as they navigate this path.
Young children are concrete thinkers
Because younger children will take what an adult tells them as literal, it is important to be aware of how we communicate about death to children. Saying things like “We lost Grandpa” or “Mom is sleeping and won’t wake up” could create a fear of getting lost or of falling asleep.
A child’s family provides a context for the grief process
Children initially take their cues regarding communication and social interactions from family members, particularly parents. The loss of a family member affects the way a family functions. Think of a mobile as it hangs from the ceiling with each part of the mobile representing a family member. Once a mobile is adjusted and balanced, it remains steady. If a part of the mobile is removed or touched in any way (or a new part is added), the mobile moves, readjusting until it has once again attained balance.
Secondary losses may be a part of the process
When children grieve a major loss, they may also experience sadness over additional losses, such as greater family responsibility, change in family dynamics, less adult attention, etc.
Repetition is necessary for the grieving process
A child may ask the same question repeatedly as a way of gaining understanding of the loss. When adults in the child’s life consistently answer questions, they provide a sense of trust and stability.
Re-grieving is part of the process
Grieving often happens in cycles, and children re-grieve as they move into a new developmental stage. Children review the incident of loss and therefore the process of grieving as they attain a new view of the world and increased cognitive abilities with which to feel and express it.
Children may focus on contagion
Children may think that the illness and death of a loved one can be passed on like the flu.
Children often want to know “Why?”
Because they are focused on themselves, children often have the sense they have the power to make things happen in their lives and may feel responsible for someone’s death. Adults can convey to children that thoughts and feelings are not powerful enough to cause sickness and death.
Parents may be tempted or feel compelled out of their own pain to give a child a pat on the back and say, “It will be okay.” Such a well-meaning comment, however, does not allow the space a child needs to share his or her story.
Children grieve most significantly within their families. Some children also benefit from professional help. As a school counselor, I have been able to connect groups of kids who have experienced the death of a loved one. In one group, a child went home and told her parent that she was able to meet kids just like her and that they were even in her own school! A group experience can have a powerful and positive impact on a grieving child.
The information for this article is based in part on information obtained from Safe Crossings of Providence Hospice in Seattle. For more information and to access grief services, call Safe Crossings at (206) 320-4000 or Evergreen Hospice in Kirkland at (425) 899-1040.
The following Web site has information regarding grief and developmental stages: www.kidsource.com/sids/childrensgrief.html.
Kathy Gildea, MA, LMFT, is a YFS counselor at Island Park Elementary School and can be reached at (206) 230-6285. For more information about counseling services at MIYFS, contact Gayle Erickson, Clinical Supervisor, at (206) 236-3525.