kid leaning on a tree with arms around knees, feeling sad

How Children Grieve

In my previous two blogs I invited readers to learn more about the subject of grief and loss. Having recently completed writing curriculum for a 3-hour workshop on the subject, I became aware that it’s so important to inform readers how the power grief can affect their lives and some of the ways to respond to another person’s grief.

In this blog we will consider how children grieve and what they may need from the adults around them to help guide them through grieving processes. I want to remind you that sometimes you see some of your beliefs and behaviors reflected in those recommendations of what to avoid and that can produce feelings of guilt and shame. That is never an intended goal, however sometimes when we learn we did something that might not be as healthy as we thought, it can cause strong feelings of regret. Please keep checking on your own reactions to this information and practice self-compassion and self-care.

According to the book When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses, when children grieve their typical first reaction is numbness. Along with that is a reduced ability to concentrate. There can be changes in eating and sleeping patterns and a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows.

The authors recommend that parents and caregivers never compare losses in an attempt to invite children to look for things for which they can be grateful. They state that there is no such thing as half grief for children. They also note that time doesn’t necessarily heal a child or anyone’s grief. When not given opportunities to process grief, it can remain unresolved within that child, just as it does with adults.

Some of the things that are important not to say to children: “Don’t feel bad!” They use the example, “If you hit your finger with a hammer and are jumping up and down in pain, how helpful would it be for someone to say, ‘Don’t feel pain, after all you didn’t hit yourself on purpose?’”

They emphasize a very important principle of grieving: without sadness, joy cannot exist. “Feeling bad has a purpose. If you believe in the magnificent design of humans, then you must accept the fact that in order to have the capacity to feel happiness or joy, you must also be able to experience sadness or pain. Any attempt to bypass sad, painful, or negative emotions can and will have disastrous consequences. One tragic byproduct of the legacy of the simple phrase, ‘Don’t feel bad,’ is that it often leads to a much worse cliché, ‘don’t feel.” This can all eventually lead to moving from “don’t feel bad” to “don’t feel at all.”

They also suggest that parents and caregivers keep in mind how unhealthy it can be to tell children that they need to be careful not to make someone else experience feelings. They state, “One tragic byproduct of the legacy of the simple phrase, ‘Don’t feel bad,’ is that it often leads to a much worse cliché, ‘don’t feel.’ This can all eventually lead to moving from “don’t feel bad” to “don’t feel at all”… The long-term danger of passing on to children the idea that they are responsible for the feelings of others automatically sets them up to believe that others could be responsible for their feelings.”

They recommend that you do not replace the loss as quickly as possible as a way to help children avoid their feelings of grief. They very wisely say, “What these parents fail to realize is that their children did not need to be fixed. Mostly they need to be heard. The feelings of loss are normal and natural; there was nothing that needed fixing, just affirming.”  The key message: “Children need to feel bad when their hearts are broken. Don’t try to fix them with a replacement.”

By making sure the way we respond to children’s grief frees them to do the hard work of grieving and allows them the freedom to be authentic with their feelings. This is a beautiful gift parents can give to the children in their care.

In my next blog I’ll give you some specific ages and stages information about what to expect of children when they are very young, toddlers, preschoolers, older children and teens. The more parents and caregivers know about how children grieve, the better equipped we can be to nurture our children’s emotional and relational health.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Recall any significant losses you had as a child. How did the adults around you respond to you? What in this blog can you relate to in their responses?
  2. What can you commit to doing now that you have greater awareness and understanding of what grieving children need?

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