The Forgotten Mourner: Helping Children Grieve

(Adapted from material presented by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a respected grief counselor and author, known throughout the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing in grief. Visit his website at: http://www.centerforloss.com).

The most important factor in helping children deal with grief is the response of the adults who influence their lives – parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends. Handled with warmth and understanding, a child’s early experiences with death can be an opportunity to learn about life and living as well as death and dying.

For adult caregivers the first step is to learn about grief themselves. Well-intended adults often pass on their own anxieties and fears to the children they are trying to help. Studies show that children often suffer more from the loss of parental support during this time than from death itself. By learning about grief, you have already begun to prepare yourself to help your children.

The challenge for caregivers is to develop “helping-healing” relationships with children whose lives have been touched by the death of someone loved. A child’s feelings need to be taken seriously and parents need to answer questions openly and in ways that children can understand. When this is done, children are capable of reconciling grief in healthy ways.

Let Your Children Teach You

Like adults, children respond to grief in different ways. Each response is unique. Rather than prescribing what their grief experience should be, caregivers must allow children to be their teachers – to tell them what their grief experience is.

  • Never assume you know how your children feel.
  • Never assume that children in a certain age group will understand death in the same way.
  • Never attempt to determine when it is time for children to stop grieving.
  • Never impose your feelings on your children.

Caring adults need to communicate important attitudes:

Respect: treating children as separate persons without being possessive or damaging their self-esteem.

Acceptance: supporting them without judging their behavior; recognizing and acknowledging their uniqueness.

Warmth and understanding: personal closeness; lots of reassuring hugs.

Remember that two-thirds of communication is nonverbal. Tone of voice, eye contact, posture, and facial gestures are common and essential nonverbal clues.

Dimensions of Childhood Grief

Caregivers need to be aware of the different manner in which children express their grief and recognize them as normal ways children work through their grief. The characteristics below are among the most prominent dimensions of childhood grief. They occur in no particular order or progression. Each child’s response is uniquely different.

Apparent Lack of Feelings

A child may be playing in the backyard within minutes of learning of a death. This is not inappropriate behavior for a child. It is a protective mechanism that allows them to detach themselves from the pain the only way they can.

Adults may be confused by this apparent indifference. But this is a child’s way of naturally pushing away, at least temporarily, the knowledge that someone has died. Just as an adult puts a Band-Aid on a child’s physical wound, parents must respect a child’s need to temporarily cover up emotional wounds.

Regression Behavior

A grieving child may return to a sense of security and protection they experienced at earlier times in their lives – a need to be rocked, difficulty in separating from parents, requests for parents to do simple tasks (like tying shoes), difficulty in working independently, fear of the dark, baby talk, or the need for constant personal attention.

Regression behavior may occur at any time, but it usually happened immediately follow the death. It is usually temporary, and if children are allowed to return to a “safer” time, they will usually emerge from their mourning competent. Caregivers should provide children a supportive presence that permits them to share their conflicting thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.

“Big Man” or “Big Woman” Syndrome

This is the opposite of regression behavior – when a child attempts to grow up quickly and exhibits adult behavior in an effort to replace the person who has died. This forced maturity is often the result of children carrying out the instructions or expectations of adults: “You’ll have to be the man of the house now.” It may also be an unconscious attempt to symbolically keep the person has died alive. By filling the loved one’s role, the child doesn’t have to acknowledge the full effect of the loss.

It is ridiculous to assert that a child can be “the man of the house” and it imposes an unfair burden upon them and robs them of their childhood. Caregivers should avoid such trite advice as “You’ll have to take care of your mother now that your dad is gone” and protect them from others who would impose this well-intended but inappropriate instruction.

Explosive Emotions

Among them – blame, anger, hatred, terror, resentment, rage, and jealousy. Behind these emotions are a child’s more primary feelings of pain, helplessness, frustration, fear, and hurt cause by death. These are the same “protest emotions” often expressed by adults and are a normal part of grief. The expression of these emotions prevents children from turning their emotions inward, resulting in low self-esteem, depression, chronic feelings of guilt, and physical complaints.

Children must not be allowed to hurt themselves or others or destroy property. But thoughtful caregivers will allow them to let go of pent-up emotions. Healthy grief requires that we express, not repress, these feelings in a safe, loving environment.

Acting-Out Behavior

Included are temper outbursts, becoming unusually loud, starting fights, defiance of authority, or rebellion against everyone. Sometimes grades will drop and the child assumes an “I-don’t-care” attitude. Older children may talk about running away from home.

Factors influencing this response:

Feelings of insecurity: acted-out feelings give them a sense of control and power.

Feelings of abandonment: acted-out behavior creates a self fulfilled prophecy; “see, nobody loves me.”

Desire to provoke punishment: unconscious guilt may cause them to want to be punished.

Desire to protect from future loss: acted-out behavior keeps people at a distance; an attempt to insulate themselves from feelings of abandonment in the future; better to be the abandoner than the abandoned.

Desire to externalize feelings of grief: some children grieve but do not mourn; acted-out behavior is a way of saying, “I hurt too.”

Caregivers should not panic over this behavior. Patience, loving assurance, and a listening ear will help you understand what your children need. Remember: let them teach you.

Loss and Loneliness

This never takes place all at once and may continue for months after the death. These feelings usually become most pronounced when the child realizes that the person who has died is never coming back. The finality of death often produces depression children. It may be expressed in a variety of ways:

  • Lack of interest in themselves or others
  • Lack of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Change in appetite
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Nervousness
  • Low self-esteem

Caregivers should assure in words and touch that they are not alone in their grief and patiently help them move toward encountering life once again.

Reconciliation: The Final Dimension

Like adults, children will never “get over” their grief, but they can be reconciled to it. At this point, they recognize that life will never be the same without the person who died, but they have a renewed sense of energy and confidence as they “return” to life again.

Never prescribe timetables to reach reconciliation. A child will proceed at his or her own pace. Changes noted during reconciliation include:

  • Return to stable eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Renewed sense of well being.
  • A subjective sense of release from the person who died.
  • An increase in thinking, perception, and judgment.
  • An increased ability to enjoy life’s experiences.
  • A recognition of the finality of death.
  • Establishment of new, healthy relationships.

Most importantly, the child has gained the ability to cope with the loss and is ready to get on with the business of living. Reconciliation can best be achieved with the assistance of helping-healing adults who allow children to move toward their grief, not away from it. Children need to know that grief is nothing of which to be ashamed.