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Losing a loved one is a tragic event of gigantic proportions; it is something we never forget and will carry for the remainder of our lives. And when a child experiences loss, our hearts break for him or her. The idea of childhood tends to be associated with innocence and joy; grief brings the very opposite to a child’s life.
If we have the task of helping a grieving child make some adjustments to life without a loved one, how do we go about supporting and guiding them? What practical steps can we take?
This article explores some of the ways we can help at this difficult time, whether we are a parent, friend, teacher, or a role model to a grieving child.
How do children grieve?
Grief is the experience of facing life without a loved one. The life we’d had mapped out suddenly looks very different. In fact, the whole world suddenly looks different. This is a frightening experience for us all, big or small.
For children, the loss of a caregiver, in particular, can immediately make the world a very frightening place; somebody who provided a secure and loving base has gone. This rocks the very foundations of their world.
Children experience all the same emotions as adults when losing a loved one. Contrary to what you might hear, children aren’t “better at getting on with it” or “too young to understand”. They will also experience many difficult and unexpected emotions just like adults: sadness, emptiness, anger, despair and many others.
However, unlike adults, children do not have much life experience to draw upon. They’ve yet to learn skills to help them cope with these emotions, like the ability to self-soothe. They may also have little understanding of the concept of death at this young age. All this puts them at the base of a very steep learning curve.
When faced with the aftermath of loss, children’s young minds have to work overtime to attempt to understand what this bereavement means to them in both a practical and philosophical sense, whilst also struggling with a cacophony of emotions felt more intensely than ever before.
And so we see, helping children with grief is of paramount importance. We must help them navigate a world that has changed forever.
Here are some principles and ideas for helping a grieving child:
1. Be aware that you are modeling how to grieve.
Without the life experience required to know how to grieve, children turn to the adults closest to them to learn. The adults also affected by the bereavement are modeling behaviors and emotions, and subconsciously the child will be absorbing these.
This means adults need to be very careful with how they present their own grief. Some may worry that becoming upset in front of a child will not help the child, so they ‘put on a brave face’ and save their emotions for more private time. However, what this is actually teaching the child is that the emotions connected with grief need to be inhibited. The child then wrongly learns to shut out the grief themselves.
When a child suppresses their grief, a chain of other behaviors may emerge. Children do not have the chance to express their own feelings and have them validated. When these fundamental emotional needs are not met, other states of mind may develop in response.
Typically, anger and destructive behavior may begin. This may be directed at the people around them, or the child may become self-destructive.
Alternatively, the child may develop a long-term tendency to massively inhibit emotions for fear of disapproval or shame.
So, how should you model grief?
There is no straightforward answer to this question. After all, there is no ‘correct’ way to grieve; we are all individuals in this respect.
What is important, therefore, is to remain honest and open with children. Let them see that you, too, struggle with the enormity of your feelings in these circumstances. Talk about how you also suffer. This way, a child knows that they are not alone.
With this principle in mind, if you have also been affected by the bereavement, it may be that you also help with your own grief. Here are some suggested practical steps to take:
● Join a support group for yourself.
● Spend plenty of time with supportive people, family, and friends who listen (and limit contact with negative, dismissive or judgemental people).
● Don’t hesitate to get professional help if you feel you might need to.
● Find the time and space to express your own grief.
2. Create opportunities for the child to express their grief.
This might be as simple as noticing a child is looking sad, acknowledging this and giving them the opportunity to talk.
Looking through photos, creating drawings or art to remember a person, or making a memory book are all practical activities that give the child an opportunity to express their feelings.
It’s really important that all the feelings the child expresses are validated and normalized. It’s fine to have mixed feelings and not feel sad all of the time, just as it is fine to feel anger and despair.
3. Be clear there is no deadline for the end of the grieving period.
Although the above activities will help you and the child in the experience of grief, the goal is never to completely ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one. To set such a goal is an unrealistic and unfair expectation.
Grief can never be processed to the point that is completely gone. Be sure to reinforce this idea with a grieving child. There is no timeline or set pattern to grief. Instead, we should see the future as a process of growing and developing around the grief.
To help a child, you might be able to share your experiences from the past; how you learned to live with the loss of a loved one, how it changed and shaped you.
4. Be patient and kind.
Even with all the goodwill in the world, and with your love and attentive listening, there are likely to be times when the child struggles with the enormity of the situation they face. This may manifest itself as ‘acting out’ behavior. At these times, remember that the behavior is caused by the child struggling to express emotions and is a cry for attention.
If you are also grieving, learn how to treat yourself with compassion. Helping a grieving child whilst also grieving yourself can feel like an overwhelming task at times. While you need to treat the child with patience and kindness, you need to do the same for yourself.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel you’ve handled something wrongly. If you feel this ‘mistake’ has affected your child, see it as another opportunity to show that you are also struggling at times.
5. Don’t shoulder the responsibility alone.
There is likely to be some support in your local area available for families affected by grief, or for anybody helping a grieving child. Here are some ideas for finding people, activities, and events to help a grieving child:
- At this difficult time, strongly consider accessing a professional child psychology service for support. Find a client-focused therapist who has a proven track record of helping children adjust to life without a loved one.
- Join a support group and meet families going through the same experience. This helps combat feelings of isolation.
- Access resources and events provided by charities specializing in helping children with grief.
- Find children’s books that deal with grief as a way of helping to normalize emotions and open up discussions.
There is no magic way of healing a child’s grief. Children need time, space and opportunities to grieve. They need love, support, patience, and kindness from their adult carers.
Grieving children need adults to be open and honest about grief, who listen and acknowledge their feelings. Grief should never be suppressed or ignored. This way, over time, a child can learn to live with their loss and to grow and develop around it.
Dr. Gemma Gladstone is an endorsed clinical psychologist and certified schema therapist, supervisor, and trainer. Along with Justine Corry, she is co-director of the Good Mood Clinic in Sydney and has 24 years of experience within mental health.