Helping Children
Deal With Grief

We cannot protect our children from ever feeling the pain of loss but we can help them manage the pain and express their emotions. Nicole Wallace discusses how to identify the signs of grief at different age ranges, engaging your child in healthy forms of grief expression, ways to encourage conversations about grief with children.

With Nicole Wallace, MEd, LCMHC

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.

What Is Grief?

  • Grief is an emotional response and sometimes a physical response to a loss.
  • Grief is a deep emotional and mental anguish. It can be a subjective response to the experience of loss of something or someone significant. Something that adults may feel shouldn’t be grieved over, our children feel differently. (For example: The pet fish died. An adult may feel that it is something to easily move on from and get a new one, but a child may not be in agreement with that.)
  • Recognizing that a child’s experience of grief is different from an adult is very important.

5 Stages of Grief

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.

 

  1. Denial – The feeling that this can’t be happening or that it isn’t really occurring. They will wake up tomorrow and it will be different.
  2. Anger – Why is this happening to me? In children, you may see them deflecting their anger on others or even toward themselves.
  3. Bargaining – I will do anything to change this. Children may believe if they did better or acted better than the loss wouldn’t have occurred.
  4. Depression – What’s the point of going on after this loss? Children may self isolate, sleep more, spending more time in their room and disconnecting with others.
  5. Acceptance – I know what happened. I can’t change it. However, I can manage and cope. This is the place we all hope to get to with a loss regardless of the degree of the loss we experienced.

 

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.

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What Factors Can Determine Grief For Children

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:

  • Nature of the relationship (ex: the passing of a grandparent who was part of the primary caregiver relationship, may hit harder rather than if the grandparent lives several states away and was only seen on holidays).
  • Manner of death (car accident, criminal activity, suicide etc)
  • Length of illness (long and drawn out illnesses may have provided for some preparation and discussions that can affect either positively or negatively).
  • Time of death experience (what else going on in the child’s life during the time period – graduation, tests at school etc.)
  • Social variables (people put social constructs on relationships – ex: some communities frown upon divorce and a child is now in a single parent home where people are asking questions).

What Circumstances Can Cause Children to Grieve?

  • Loss of a loved one (family member, friend, classmate).
  • Loss of a pet
  • Divorce
  • Moving
  • Separation from a caregiver (ex: child in preschool and transfer over to kindergarten, missing daycare givers and preschool teachers)
  • Personal illness or ability loss (ex: child may develop a life threatening disease, loss of hearing or eyesight)

Effects On Children Ages 2-5

Each age group may experience similar symptoms, there may be certain behaviors displayed at some stages that are not displayed at others.

  • Children at this stage are very egocentric (building skills and learning about self). They may feel the death/loss was their fault (“If I’m a better person, clean my room, eat my vegetables, will this experience change?”)
  • They may feel abandoned.
  • The grief may interrupt age appropriate activities and some regression in the development may occur. (Ex: Pottty training reverting to bed wetting) 
  • Crying, whining, and biting may occur.
  • Emotions may vary (sadness, anger, anxiety, and guilt) (may go from playing nicely to having a tantrum and back to calm).

Effect On Children 6-12

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. 

  • May attach spiritual beliefs to death or loss (God, Heaven, etc…)
  • May have security or safety concerns after the loss. (Not wanting to leave home or concerned about others safety).
  • May be concerned about the process of death and ask questions.
  • May interrupt age appropriate activities – regression (clinging, crying, nightmares, independent children may need more affection and attention)
  • May believe a certain behavior will bring loved ones back (denial and bargaining).
  • May experience sadness, anger, anxiety and guilt.

Effect on Children 13-19

Children at this age often act as if they “know everything”. They are coming into themselves.

  • May have self-esteem or identity issues if the loss was someone significantly close.
  • This is the stage where independence develops. May self-isolate.
  • May keep their grief to themselves because they do not want to burden adults who are grieving. Sharing grief may help give solace.
  • May express grief through body language or acting out behavior (substance abuse or self harm)
  • May experience poor school performance and mixed emotions. (May not move as quickly through the emotions as the younger stages)

How Can I Help My Child?

  • Listen – active listening with eye contact and reflecting back so they know they are being heard
  • Ask open ended questions about their feelings (don’t minimize or rush) – Not using “yes” or “no” questions. (Ex: What do you feel about Grandma’s funeral coming up? How are you feeling about going to Dad’s house by yourself?) Try not to minimize (It will be Ok. You’ll get over it). Recognize their feelings and not rush them through their grief.
  • Be in their space – sit with them (Younger children may need an extra amount of time. Older children who may not want you in their space and will ask you to be with them more).
  • Share your feelings – age appropriate
  • Acknowledge their pain
  • Try to identify grief triggers in advance

Other Ways I Can Help My Child

  • Be straightforward (Try to avoid terms like “gone away” or “gone asleep” may trigger other fears).
  • Seek counseling (If you feel you need more assistance seek help)
  • Engage in social activities (Still having friends and family over)
  • Encourage good nutrition and exercise (getting outside and moving their body)
  • Seek spiritual support (draw in spiritual community)
  • Encourage creativity – (journal writing, drawing, building photo albums, letter writing)
  • Keep up the child’s regular routine (not pushing them but helping them to have some consistency)

Resources

 

Nicole Wallace, LCMHC

919-925-2274

educ8now@yahoo.com

Q&A

Cindi:

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?

 

Nicole:

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.

 

Cindi:

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?

 

Nicole:

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.

 

Crissy:

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?

 

Nicole:

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).

 

Participant:

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?

 

Nicole:

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.

 

Cindi:

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?

 

Nicole

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.

 

Participant:

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.

 

Nicole:

 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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