Grief in Children
Children Express Grief in Their Own Way
As recently as last century, death was much more a natural part of a child’s life. With modern medicine helping us live longer, and more elderly dying in nursing homes and hospitals, the exclusion of death from children’s lives means that we need to teach them explicitly about death and grief.
Pain is a natural reaction when we lose someone close, and children are capable of accepting painful reality directly and openly.
We need to allow children to express their grief in their own way and in their own time. When adults try to protect children from the pain of loss, it is usually themselves they are trying to protect.
They may not be able to easily verbalize what they are feeling and instead may demonstrate their feelings through their behaviour and play. They may laugh or play at a time that feels inappropriate to an adult.
Children need to feel that it is okay to talk about death and grief. However if a child does not want to talk about his/her grief, adults need to respect that.
Messages such as “Don’t cry”, “Be strong”, “You’re the man in the family now” or “Be a good girl - mum needs your help now” suppress grief expression in children and set up unfair expectations of them.
Grieving children who are sad or depressed require a lot of support and attention so that they can express their sad feelings and work through them. Helen Fitzgerald, a well-known children’s grief therapist, recommends several techniques for helping a depressed grieving child. She suggests having the child draw good and bad memories of the deceased and share them with others.
Encouraging the child to engage in physical activity is another useful technique with a depressed child.
It is sometimes easier for a child to feel angry rather than sad. Children generally tend to express their anger physiologically. It is allow a child to work off the anger through exercising, scribbling on paper, ripping paper, singing or sculpting play dough.
Some children have guilt or regrets about negative aspects of the relationship with the deceased or regrets about things that did not happen or were not said prior to the death.
There are many techniques that are useful in helping children work through these feelings. One option is to write a letter to or draw a picture for the deceased describing their “unfinished business.” A child could also write a note about what they feel guilty about, tie the note to a helium balloon and then release the balloon into the sky.
Children who are fearful generally need repetitive reassurance that they will be OK. It is also important that an adult spends alone and focused time with the grieving child, reassuring them that they are special and loved.
When a grieving child routinely has physical complaints like headaches and stomach aches, it is sometimes helpful to ask what other feelings they may be having. They may not disclose their emotions right away, but they may begin to make their own connection between their physical and emotional concerns.
A visit to the paediatrician may also be advised, so the child can hear reassurance from the doctor that nothing is wrong.
Many psychologists believe that what a child experiences as lost along with the death, how they talk about their deceased parent or significant adult, and how they understand his or her place in their lives can be even more critical than age-specific understanding of death.
A therapist can help you with programs and ideas for grief management for a child. At Jarvis Hypnotherapy, we develop specific programs for individual clients on a needs basis. Every person, and every child, is different so talk to us today if you have concerns and would like help in dealing with, and understanding, a grieving child.