Grief and Children

Nothing upsets a parent quicker than making their children hurt. So, what do we do when death strikes at the heart of our family dealing emotional injuries to all of us? We grieve our losses, but what about the kids? We are supposed to protect our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and all the kids in the neighborhood. How do we do that?

It seems too obvious to say that kids grieve too. We know that, yet it scares us to think that my child is hurting. I’ve witnessed the grief of a six month old, walked alongside teens, and seen adult children grieve the loss of a parent.

First, let me also say that we are all individuals, and as no two people are alike, no two people grieve alike. That includes children. Also, let me state the obvious…Children Are Resilient. They bounce back after sicknesses, they bounce back when their feelings are hurt; they even bounce when they fall. As they grieve, they tend to “bounce in and out of grief.” I have noticed that there are, however, some things that a lot of children have in common, and that is what I want to share here.

If you are a grieving parent or grandparent, you need to grieve too. You don’t “have to be strong for the kids.” Yes, your grief will affect your children; there is no way to avoid that. So you are likely to find yourself multi-tasking in a way you didn't bargain for…grieving your own loss…while being there for them. If you’ve ever been on an airline you’ve heard the crew say something like, “in the unlikely event of the loss of cabin pressure the oxygen masks will fall down and if you are flying with a small child, put your own mask on first, then the child.” Take care of yourself. Survival will be your primary goal during the first weeks and months, maybe years.

The best way to deal with grief is to grieve. Grief, child or adult, needs to be faced and walked through. One lady said that her child’s friend had died. She had not told the child. When asked why not she said, “Well, if she knows won’t she grieve?” The counselor said, “If you’re lucky she will.” Grieving is not the only way to handle loss, but it is the best way to handle grief. Grief is not an enemy to be avoided.Grief is a healing process to walk through. Loss is a four letter word, grief is not. I like the fact that one grief support organization took a line from Charlie Brown’s comic strip and call themselves, “Good Grief.” Healthy grief is good grief.

Kids need to grieve too, and should be allowed, encouraged and assisted in their grief by the adults in their lives. We seem to think that tears are to be avoided at all costs. “There, there, don’t cry” is a popular saying for parents to “comfort” their children. How many times have I said to people who grieve, “Cry as much as you need to.” One lady said, “But I don’t want to.” I didn’t say cry as much as you want to, but as much as you need to. And our children may cry…and we need to be okay with them crying as much as they need to cry. Remember, they are resilient. A very healthy approach is for parents to help their kiddos identify the emotion they’re processing. Don’t try to fix it, just observe and label it; “You’re sad…You’re angry…You’re confused.” Helping kids or adults identify the emotion they are feeling is very comforting and moves us down the road to healing the emotional injuries.

Grief is like peeling an onion, it comes off one layer at a time and you cry a lot. We know that an adult would peel an onion differently than a five year old. The five year old might be more likely to play with it for a while, hit it with a stick, or kick it into the next room. The onion might be found later buried under a pile of dirty clothes. That analogy sounds simple, but that tends to picture what happens to children in grief. This is very important to realize. Parents should be aware that children often do not have the words to describe their feelings. Children often use play, misbehavior, attention seeking behavior as their words.

Resilience is seen as our children grieve deeply for a few minutes, then want to go outside and play…especially if it’s raining. They will come back to grief in a little while, grieve deeply again, then play some more. Play is what children do for a living. Play is how they work through their feelings. They might “bury” superman in their toy box or under a pile of clothes. Older kids might hold mock funeral ceremonies and take turns “being dead.” I think children instinctively know how much they can handle, and that is why they are “on and off” a lot when it comes to grief. Play therapy is a relatively new but effective treatment for emotional injuries to children, and grief is an emotional injury. Play is the expression of feelings kids aren’t able to communicate.

They also grieve our grief. Children sense when something is wrong. They may not understand death, or may not even be told about death, but they understand that something is different. This is why our efforts to protect them can easily backfire. We don’t want them to be scarred by the experience, so they go to visit someone while we go to the funeral. We get to say good-bye, but deny them that experience for fear that they will be scarred. Parents allowing children to see them grieve essentially teaches children how to grieve through modeling. Children who are not taught or modeled this skill may adapt unhealthy coping strategies.

When children are not allowed to join in the family’s grief they are left to their own imagination. Too often the imagination of a thing is much worse that the thing itself. Depending on their age it’s probably okay to let the child decide what to do about viewing the body and attending the funeral. I suggest that you visit the funeral home before the crowd arrives. Have a special time just for the children. Open both ends of the casket to avoid the question, “Why did they cut Daddy’s legs off?” Allow them to write a letter, color a picture, or leave a small memento inside the casket if they would like.

Your child may want explanations, give them the chance to ask before the funeral, and be honest without giving more information than a child can process. For example, for an explanation of death, “His body quit working.” Instead of “Daddy went to be with Jesus,” you might want to consider something like, “Daddy’s body quit working…he died…so we have to bury his body in the cemetery. Daddy’s spirit went to heaven to be with Jesus.” One child asked, “Is Daddy like a ghost now?” His mother was wise to respond, “It’s okay to think of Daddy like that, if it doesn’t scare you. Daddy would never want to scare you.”

Be ready to hear some big questions. Things like…Why?...How?...Who will take care of me now?...Will it happen to me?...Will it happen to you? These are questions that adults might also have, but have gotten used to not having real answers.

The child is looking for reassurance and to have their feelings validated more than they are looking for answers. It’s alright to say, “I don’t know why things like this happen, but I am here for you right now.” This is probably not the best time to wax eloquent over philosophic details of mortality. When your children are present, talk with them(at their eye level),not about them, nor down to them. Don’t assume anything. Make it okay for them to ask you anything they need to ask. This might be a good time to reassure your child that you will be there for them as long as you possibly can, if something were to happen to you, the plan is that grandma, or aunt, or other grandma will take care of them. There is a plan if something unplanned happens.

Anger is normal in grief. It is there because anger is our natural response to hurt. Anger is actually helpful in the grief process. The problem becomes, what do you do with anger? Most adults have learned appropriate ways to recognize anger, express it, deal with it, and move on. Sometimes children need help in these things, recognizing, expressing, and dealing with anger. If you don’t deal with anger properly, it builds until it turns inward and becomes self-destructive. Physical activity, shredding newspapers, hanging an old pillow up to hit with a bat, bounce houses, sports, etc. can provide a good physical outlet for the anger. Naming the anger, finding something to be angry at (the cancer cells) can also be helpful. Saying, “I am angry, I have a right to be angry, and it’s okay to be angry” might help.

Guilt can be an issue. It is hard enough for adults to deal with guilt and false guilt surrounding our losses, and children can build elaborate reasoning that “proves” in their minds that they should feel guilty. The strange thing is that we can’t change the way people feel by changing the way they think. If we can help them identify anger or guilt, give them an outlet for the anger or guilt, the pressure is vented.

Everyone needs a safe place with safe people to say what we need to say as we grieve. Children in particular need to get comfortable openly talking about and dealing with death. If you are not comfortable using “the D word” your children won’t be either. Make it okay for your child to talk with you. It takes a lot of courage to allow your child to see you grieve, and at the same time help them find a way “use their words” to express their own grief. Because your child sees you hurt, you might not feel like a “safe” person to talk to about their own pain. Don’t be offended, it is not that they don’t trust you, rather they don’t want to hurt you more than you already hurt.

Red Flags

You’ve heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is to some degree good advice for grieving children, but let me add another,“Kids don’t need to be fixed. They need to be heard.” Most will find their way through grief without professional help. At the same time, you need to realize that professional help is available. How do you know if it’s time to ask for help? There are some signs that professional counselors watch for, these may be present in all children, but watch for the intensity and length. If the changes are dramatic and do not pass in a few weeks, it is time for concern.

Watch for:

Acting Out Anger - Anger is usually present in grief, and children might not know how to express that anger. Watch for fights, tantrums, anything out of the normal pattern for this child.

Bed-wetting/Nightmares/Changes in diet - When it comes as children grieve are other flags that might be saying, “need a little help here.”

Changes in Health - More than usual complaints of illness, or listless and no energy.

Changes in Personality - Especially isolating himself from family when this has not been his habit. Overly dependent or clinging to you is equally as concerning.

Lack of Emotion - Especially if there is no emotion regarding the loss…it might be cause for concern. Often “emotion” from children won’t look the same as emotion from adults.

Poor School Performance - If grades drop significantly, it needs to be explored.

Prolonged Depression - As with anger, some depression in grief is normal, and depression might be new and unknown to your child.

Prolonged Resistance to Recognizing the Loss - Denial is a legitimate coping mechanism, but it is not a long term solution to grief.

Though seeing some of these red flags in your child is scary for you, it might or might not mean that you need immediate help. It may mean the child needs to find a way to talk it out at home. Giving them space and the place to talk may be all that is needed. If that fails, you might try another family member next, sometimes a teacher can help, or a school counselor. Some pastors or youth ministers are trained, experienced and willing to help. There are children’s grief groups available in some areas. An online search, or a call to a local hospice agency may help you locate someone trained and experienced in dealing with this.

And let me give you a heads up from personal experience. Don’t be surprised if your professional says that they need to treat the child by treating you. To some degree this might be needed. It won’t mean that you are a bad parent, just that’s the approach some professional counselors take.

We are here to help. Our Employee Assistance Program is a great resource in your search for help. Your Simmons Chaplains have access to some resources, and we are aware of some specialized children’s grief support groups.

I owe a Thank You to Darwin King LCSW with Good Shepherd Hospice in Grove, OK for training me in many areas of grief and grieving, especially this one.

Thank You as well to Heather Bishop of Simmons Foods for adding her input and expertise as well.

Add to this my gratitude for the families that have allowed me to me a part of their grief journey with their children.