Psychology Today – When Children Grieve
This article was originally published in Psychology Today on February 3, 2014. It is written by Heather Edwards and Dr. Mark Banschick.
The holidays are over. But, sometimes events stop us in our tracks. Death never leaves us; it’s one reason why we so urgently celebrate Hanukah, Christmas and the New Year. We have this blessed life to live. So we grab it.
Our guest blogger, Heather Edwards, tells us another tale. It is a true story about a child who lost a classmate. How are we to help children grieve? And, what do they teach us in the process?
A Child’s Sadness:
On Christmas Day this year, my 7-year-old cousin Evan began to cry in the midst of family merriment. A sudden full body sobbing experience had overcome him. He looked up at me; face soaked with tears and exclaimed, “My friend died today. She’s in heaven now.” He tearfully explained that his classmate lost her battle against cancer during the early morning hours of Christmas Day.
Evan had many questions, and many tears. He wanted to know if she is still in pain. He wanted to know if people in heaven can open their eyes. He wanted to know what they do up there and if she was alone and scared. He said he was sad for her family because of all the presents they had for her to open today. Now they won’t be able to share that joy. He said he missed her. He said it’s not fair and that she should’ve lived to be 100 years old, not seven. I was struck by the openness and range of concerns coming from this little guy in my arms.
Children experience grief, too. It can be painful for parents to witness. Their mourning process is similar to ours, only not as seasoned, jaded, nor familiar. What is a parent to do?
Allow the Tears & Give Lots of Hugs:
Tears are healing. Each teardrop releases the hurt and sadness. It allows the emotional process of grief and loss to flow and ultimately to release its grip on the spirit. You don’t want your child feeling that he or she has to protect you from real feelings. Children need to know that it’s okay to cry during the experience of death and loss. And that sadness only means that they care and love and empathize with others. This is a beautiful thing.
Answer Their Questions:
Children have a wild and wonderful imagination. Since they don’t have a mature vocabulary to express themselves yet, they use imagery and play to test theories and express themselves. Their ideas and questions are fresh and curious. Do your best as an adult upon whom they rely to encourage and satisfy those curiosities. It helps them grow, understand, and accept the many challenges life presents.
Have patience. And, listen carefully to the concerns behind their questions.
Validate the Wide Range of Feelings:
Children are expressive. A normal grieving process involves “Five Stages of Grief”, according to renown psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. During grief it’s natural to experience a series of emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Allow your child to feel sad, mad, confused, and cheated. It’s normal and healthy to acknowledge, express, and let go of painful emotions.
Encourage Remembrance of Better Times:
Consider bringing your child back to good memories of their loved one. Be sensitive when doing this because it may be too much at any given moment. Yet, these memories serve a purpose in balancing the good with the bad thoughts about loss. Depending on your religious or spiritual beliefs about the afterlife, give them hope about their friend wanting the best for them even though they can’t be here to share life with them.
Provide Structure and Reassurance:
Keep their life as normal as possible. Stick to their regular daily routines. School attendance, mealtimes, homework, bedtime, playtime or sports participation all need to continue with the same structure as always. Children need this to feel a sense of normalcy and safety in their own life. Regularity is one way of doing this.
I know that Evan will be okay. He has a loving family that only wants the best for him. His openness about his hurt feelings for his classmate and her family demonstrate his ability to trust, empathize, and grieve. His curiosity about heaven and whether he will see his classmate again one day is evidence of his ability to love and connect with others.
He is a little guy with big heart.
I wish children didn’t have to experience loss. Since they do, it’s our job as grownups to structure and validate their experience, and give them lots of love and hugs. One day loss will make a little more sense to them. Until then, they need us to create a safe, loving world for them to live in.
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