Assisting a child in
Understanding grief from a child’s point of view
Teaching a child how to deal with grief is not easy. Grief occurs when someone feels a loss and this loss can come in many different forms – the loss of a loved one, the loss of a pet, the loss of an experience like changing schools/moving house or the loss of someone special in your life moving away.
Most parents try to protect their children from grief, it’s only natural but no matter how much we try, a child needs to go through the stages too.
When any of these events occur, grief can set in and for many children, understanding what grief is or why they are experiencing it is difficult.
The concept that nothing lasts forever is a challenging one, even adults to understand and accept sometimes. Most children thrive on routine so when their routine is altered, their little world can be turned upside down.
The loss stirs up emotions from the past. All the time you spent together and all the time you missed out on.
The loss stirs up emotions in the present. All the time you cherish with your family and friends and all the wasted worry about irrelevant things.
The loss stirs up emotions in the future. All the time you are desperate to capture together but know it is not possible.
Everyone handles grief differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Understanding grief and its cycle can help with realising your feelings are normal and to help believe that one day you will smile again.
The stages of grief:
Denial– by saying “it is not real” often helps to survive the loss. Denial brings in the emotions of confusion, of not knowing if you can survive without the loved one no longer being a part of your life. As acceptance of the loss becomes real, denial fades away. CHILD – a child doesn’t understand the concept of forever so denial is easy for a child to show when a loss occurs.
Anger– it is important to feel the anger, the betrayal and the realisation that this situation is out of your control. Anger has no boundaries either and can quickly move from those close to you, to every aspect of your life. Allowing yourself to express anger should not be seen as negative behaviour as the more you feel it, the sooner it will dissipate and healing can begin. CHILD – anger for a child can come many months later when they begin to understand that forever means never again.
Bargaining– trying every ‘what if’ scenario is very normal in the stages of grief. Believing if you give something, anything to have the loved one not leave is a natural part of the grieving process. When the understanding you have nothing to bargain with is finally accepted, this stage then will move to depression. CHILD – children are usually good at bargaining, as many have bargained in the past and often resulting in getting their own way. This stage of grief is returned to often for a child, many never realising this is one argument they will never win.
Depression– the deepest level of grief is when you move into the present and depression sets in. It can also be the longest stage of the grieving cycle. Many withdraw from life, live in a haze or fog, feel like this stage will never end and often can’t picture an end to it. CHILD – this can be the most confusing stage for a child as they don’t understand why they wake to the same deep sadness every day and nothing, not even their favourite toy, eliminates these feelings.
Acceptance– accepting that this is the new norm is the final stage of grief. Often this stage is associated with guilt for trying to move on, guilt for finding yourself finally laughing at life or guilt for trying to spend time forgetting all the pain. CHILD – children are resilient and acceptance can often be the most natural step for them in the grieving process.
Helping children cope with grief
The extent to which children understand death depends largely on their age, life experiences, and personality. But there are a few important points to remember in all cases.
Helping children cope with grief in circumstances when it seems everything is falling apart:
- Allow the child to feel whatever emotion they need to. The obvious emotion of sadness may not happen immediately as many children do not understand the term forever. Some children will feel angry about what has happened to their loved one, their pet or the life they were living. Some will feel responsible for the loss and guilty that they should have done more. Some will be confused if they have a happy moment when everyone around is feeling sad. Everyone copes with tragedy in different ways and so emotions will always vary.
- Understand there is no right or wrong way to behave when life is thrown into turmoil. If the child becomes quiet, preferring to sit and just be in others company, that is OK. If the child becomes aggressive, that may be their way of screaming at the world just how unfair life really is. No matter how the child’s behaviour alters, they are not wrong. It is up to the adult to monitor the behaviour and seek assistance when necessary.
- Don’t assume a child understands the grief they are experiencing, even older children. In such extreme situations, many children either tune out or digress into immature behaviour. It can be their lack of understanding of the situation and their emotions that will take time for them to process. If grief is difficult for adults to understand and accept, just imagine how the child is feeling.
- Encourage children to ask questions. The questions do not have to be related to the death either, so long as you are communicating as this will aid in the process of grieving. Do not tell the child a lie or a half-truth when asked a question, simply tell them age appropriate answers. If they continue to ask, continue to talk with them, as this a great way of helping children cope.
- Finally, get as much help as you can. Many of us are not experienced in these situations (especially where children are concerned), so enlist your support crew, everyone from counsellors to extended family and friends.