Children have three, often unasked, questions when told of an impending separation, divorce or death:
Did I cause this?
Even though you have initially stated to the children this event is not their fault, their guilt remains a nagging concern for a long time.
Who will keep me safe?
Children instinctively know they can’t take care of themselves. This is a fundamental anxiety of all children…even adolescents. While teens seemingly are pulling away from the family, they still want to know there is a protective haven to return to when life gets too frightening or a problem arises.
Is this going to happen to me too?
History repeating itself with the inherent pain that separation/divorce cause is a major concern. As parents, we can use our experience as a teaching tool.
Divorce/separation/death is survivable for our children if they are given support, encouragement and love. This experience can be used as a learning tool for other loss events throughout their lives. Each painful situation children experience well, will better equip them to handle their next challenge.
Taken from “A Single-Parent Grief Guide” Suzy Yehl Marta Founder & President RAINBOWS
“We’ve come to understand that one of the most important influences on children’s ability to mourn in health ways are the actions of the adults around them.”
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.d.
Through the years there has been minimal research to discover the feelings children and adolescents experience when death takes a loved one from them. The assumption was that there was no emotional impact on the young ones because they were unable to verbalize their feelings or cognitively understand the concept of death.
When a child reaches adolescence or young adulthood, again the response has been that since the teen “understands” it shouldn’t be too upsetting. In addition, often “support adults” will tell this adolescent to “be strong” for their parent. Consequently, the youth are left with no appropriate outlet for their intense feelings of grief.
Today, there is knowledge that grief (loss) has no relation to ‘understanding’ but rather is a feeling response. Consequently, if a child is able to love then this child can grieve as well. However, because a young child has no understanding of time or space, it is potentially more difficult.
The child’s capacity to cope with a death depends on many things:
- The relationship to the person who died
- The type of death
- Previous death experiences
- Family’s ability to communicate with one another
- Child’s developmental stage
- Socio-cultural and religious beliefs and factors
“If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve” Alan Wolfelt PhD
How Adults Can Help Grieving Children
The following guidelines are meant to be helpful and not intended to tell you what you “should” do. Everyone’s situation is unique, and when you are grieving you are doing the best you can. This summary comes from a variety of sources (listed below) as well as some embellishment from our experiences through the Grief Support Program for Children and Teens.
Seek support and education to understand your own grief process. Grief is the “price we pay for love” and there are a myriad of physical, emotional and spiritual, and psychological responses. Lack of attention and self-care usually leads to projecting or placing our own thoughts, feelings, and needs onto our children.
Model healthy reactions to loss by expressing feelings and receiving support. How do children learn? We adults are important role models.
Acknowledge the reality that grief hurts! Don’t attempt to rescue the child or yourself from hurt. Grief work is a healing process and it is work.
At a time of loss children may feel frightened, insecure and helpless. They need additional love and support, but they also need structure in their daily routine. They need understanding and firm caring rules need not be abandoned. In fact, a routine provides a sense of continuity as well as a sense of security and stability, in what to the child may seem like a pretty crazy world.
When children experience a death it is relatively common for them to think about it happening again, either to themselves or to someone else significant in their life. Especially in the case of one parent dying, they need to know who will take care of them if the other parent dies.
Children need age appropriate information. They need an explanation as to the cause of death using the words die and dead. Our impulse is to overprotect. However, using vague terms like going away, sleep, or associating sickness with death only adds to the confusion. Also honesty is the best policy. Do not tell a child something he or she will have to unlearn; not to mention the importance of trust in a relationship.
Listen to a child’s responses to your explanations as well as to the questions they ask. Ask them what they understood; ask for feedback about your approach, especially with older children, ask them what they need. It is important to listen and respect the child’s feelings and experiences.
Do not close the door to doubt, questioning and differences of opinion. People within the same family will be in “different places”.
Watch out for kids trying to protect grieving adults by assuming the caretaker role. Children can be quite supportive; however, children need to be children and grow up without adult responsibilities.
Children will often need help in recognizing, naming, accepting, and expressing feelings. It is helpful to promote physical and creative activities for outlets. For example; kick boxing, tearing up paper, writing, painting, yelling, throwing dishes (preferably ones bought at a garage sale!).
Children can learn about death and grief prior to the actual death of a loved one. Death of a pet – how is this handled? Is the pain unbearable and the puppy replaced quickly? What does this teach the child about life and death?
Share personal and religious beliefs carefully. Children may fear or resent a God that takes to Heaven someone they love and need.
Realize that a child’s grief may be difficult to recognize. Feelings may be expressed more in behaviour than in words. Helplessness, despair, fear, and anxiety may be acted out with aggressive behaviour. Sometimes anger is directed at the safest person, often a surviving parent. It may not be conscious or rational but the child may feel that the parent should have prevented this tragedy.
Anticipate and discuss expected strains on relationships with family and peers. Individual family members and the family as a whole, most often are establishing a new identity. The child may experience the discomfort of peers who are forced to confront the thought of death by their presence.
Reassure children, especially younger ones, that they are not responsible for the person’s death. All people die. Thoughts or words do not cause death.
Parents need to know that once death is explained, it is not a closed subject. The topic will surface at very “interesting” times. It is also helpful to remember grief lasts longer than anyone expects. Children continue to deal with grief as they grow and mature. Significant rites of passage such as puberty, can be triggers for emotional reactions.
It is a good idea to establish lines of communication with everyone involved with the child. Keep each other informed about how the child is progressing. For example, grief usually causes difficulty concentrating. This can affect school work and parents and teachers can assist the child by being aware of changes or difficulties experienced in the moment and sharing this information. The balance between understanding the effects of grief and setting realistic expectations can be discussed.
Recognize the importance of rituals. Rituals allow you to channel your feelings and thoughts into an activity. They can make your feelings more manageable. It is often helpful to plan something at significant dates, like the holiday season, or a birthday. Rituals can take several forms. Rituals can be for the individual or a family. Rituals can be as simple as hanging a special ornament, lighting a candle, or setting aside a special time to remember.
- Marge Heegaard, When Someone Very Special Dies. Woodland Press 99 Woodland Circle, Minneapolis, MN 55424; 1988.
- Ben Wolfe, St. Mary’s Grief Support Centre, 407 East Third Street, Duluth, MN 55805.
- Darcie Sims, Big A and Company, PO Box 92032, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87199.
- Compiled by: Fred Nelson, Grief Support Program for Children and Teens, St. Boniface General Hospital, Department of Social Work, 409 Tache Ave. Winnipeg, MB R2H 2A6 204 237 2344.