The topic of grief is a sensitive but necessary discussion. Nicole is a mom of five children and has not wanted them to experience grief when she first became a parent but then quickly realized that it is much a part of their life. They see it portrayed in TV shows and video games, but when they experience a real life loss, you want them to be able to manage and to cope.
Nicole’s intent with her discussion is to share information about grief as well as give tools for your parent tool box that may be helpful when navigating this experience in life.
Within the study performed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, people who were dying were examined and these were the stages that the individual’s seemed to have experienced. However, research has shown that even caregivers and family members who are connected with the individual dying also experience some of these same stages.
These stages are not linear or cyclical. They will appear in different ways depending on the individual. Some people may never experience some of the stages or move right in acceptance. Others may jump from stage to stage, especially children. In some individuals the stages may overlap and you see a teenager reconcile that they had a loss and know that they can’t change it but are experiencing some depressive symptoms.
Recognizing what the stages are is important so you can identify when someone is going through them but not looking for there to be a pattern.
There are many different ways that a person, especially a child, can experience grief. The experience can come from large things (from an adults perspective) to smaller things. The following factors may influence how an individual may experience the emotion:
Each age group may experience similar symptoms, there may be certain behaviors displayed at some stages that are not displayed at others.
They are in school, curious. They will have valid concerns that need calm understanding from an adult. Children at this age have active memories so some of the good and bad things may play out for them when the evening comes and they are less distracted by the day’s events. Kids don’t always understand that death is permanent.
Children at this age often act as if they “know everything”. They are coming into themselves.
Nicole Wallace, LCMHC
Thank you for such a lovely presentation. I actually experienced the loss of my brother at the age of 18 and he was 16. I’m familiar with going through grief at various stages, so I know what it triggers inside. One of the things that it has definitely triggered for me is fear. One of my biggest fears, even now, is the fear of loss. The fear of losing another person close to me because I have experienced those feelings and not wanting to feel that again because it was just so awful.
For others who may be feeling that same fear and triggering of anxiety, how do we work through that? Using a professional is very helpful, however on a daily basis working through that possibility of loss?
Having those conversations with yourself or support people in your family, acknowledging that life has its risk and its common to have fear once you’ve had that type of traumatic experience. Recognizing that having fear is an appropriate response. Even physically you could feel yourself tense up or feel yourself become protective when it comes to your children or spouse. Recognizing when you’re having those physical symptoms of tension building in your shoulders or the rest of your body and then doing some calming activities, like breathing or having a conversation with someone to process through.
Choosing to receive therapy through grief does not need to be a linear occurrence. A person can receive support for a period of time, take a break and go back as needed.
When I experienced my significant loss, I was 18 so I was considered more of an adult. I noticed that there were things that triggered me, even years later to feel sadness, such as hearing a song, a smell or a holiday tradition that we may have done that’s no longer there.
I once heard Dr. Becky Bailey who teaches Conscious Discipline say, “Anxiety is a silent imposter in children.” Meaning that when I child has a specific behavior, it may be due to anxiety and we don’t realize it. I can see this happening with grief as well. Perhaps a child has a feeling they don’t understand that makes them miss their pet, or a smell that reminds them of their grandparent. How do we as parents recognize when it’s grief and the child has been triggered? Often people think that we work through the stages of grief and its over but it lasts your whole life. Do you have feedback?
Recognizing when the emotion doesn’t match the situation. It would be a big signal that something has been triggered. The subtle hints that show something is off and being ready to ask the open ended questions. Keying in that they look sad, or frustrated and asking them about it. Opening the door to the conversation.
I find the anger and denial stage would be the more difficult stages to handle with children. Do you have tips, thoughts or suggestions in dealing with those stages in particular?
If you can get children involved in the process it would be beneficial. For example, writing a letter or encorporating the child into the funeral service (if grief is from death). Getting them involved in the process of closure (whatever systems that are in place in which you bring closure to a death).
If it’s a divorce or loss of friendship, it’s a place where you can connect with those feelings by communicating with your child. Being concrete is often helpful when dealing with denial.
Anger has to play out in some respects with children. Often we are in a rush to have children be over with anger but it is sometimes a motivator. Letting children know that anger makes us human and that its ok to have that emotion. Where we focus it and what we do with it is important. We need to show them positive ways of expressing their anger (punching a pillow, writing a note or drawing a picture about the anger).
Do you have any tips to teach adults to sit and be with their children while they are feeling negative feelings versus trying to fix it and trying to make the children happy?
With the little ones, sometimes incorporating yourself in their play. Especially if that’s something that you don’t normally do if they are school aged. The child may find that entertaining when you play with them. It’s interesting…Legos, action figures, tea parties, sometimes in the play you will hear themes of grief and loss. You may be surprised by what comes up. Then you will be able to ask the open ended questions when they’re portraying grief and loss within their play.
With older children if they are isolating in their room, sometimes just going in a sitting with them. A lot of older children like music, so playing the favorite song and sitting throughout the time the song plays out, then asking them what they are listening to today and if you can listen to it as well. Not staying for long periods of time, or hovering but being there and checking in.
We’ve been working through our kids saying, “I don’t want to die. I want to stay here with you. I want to be here forever.” It makes me stop and pause wondering how to respond to these statements because we are all going to die. Being able to communicate that to my children without completely scaring them.
Do you have any recommendations when they are taken back by something their child says that they need to think quickly on the fly?
Making sure that you’re keeping it concrete. Not lying or give them a fantasy. For example saying, “I understand you don’t want to die and hopefully you’ll live a long life.” “We’re all here today and I hope to live a very long life. You’ll always be very well taken care of.” You’re not lying but you’re also incorporating hope. Letting them know that they have a support system. Focusing on the things that they like about life.
Along the same line, as a parent maybe you’re dealing with grief or loss and your child picks up on your emotions. Somehow you need to communicate that it’s not them but that Mom is dealing with something.
What you said is communication that needs to be relayed. “Mom is dealing with something and at this moment I feel sad.” Perhaps you need a few moments to decompress. Recognizing when you are in a period of grief and how frequently you’re experiencing those moments of grief is something that you need to keep track of because if you’re feeling overwhelming amounts of grief you may need to get professional assistance.
It’s ok to communicate to children that it is a hard time for you. It models recognition and self care. That we all don’t have happy days all the time. It will be shocking to children if they go into the world thinking that every day is supposed to be happy. They will recognize that we do have some down moments and tough days but we can put some self care techniques in place.
Nicole Wallace is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Parent Coach. Nicole has worked extensively with children between the ages of 5 and 14 in her role as a school counselor and school teacher for 22 years, but has experience providing counseling to children, adolescents, adults, and families. Her areas of treatment include but are not limited to working with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, trauma, domestic violence, grief and loss, managing stress, life transitions, relationship difficulties, and developing effective parenting skills. Nicole offers video and phone sessions to her clients.
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