Dr. Kimberly Riley
Children who have dealt with a death in the family may struggle in many ways throughout their childhood and sometimes even through adulthood. They generally grieve differently than adults and sometimes are not allowed to mourn the loss of their loved ones in ways that are unique to them. Let’s take a look at the various grief stages for children.
There are general components to the way a child grieves when they experience the death of a loved one, but the grieving process and grief stages change a bit when it is the loss of a sibling and of course, is quite different if they experience the loss of a parent.
Children’s Understanding of Death
Children grieve in ways that may not seem important to the adults in their life. Their experience should not be compared to an adult’s experience, instead, the child’s sense of the importance of the loss and their stage of development should be considered (Glass, Jr., 1991).
Sometimes adults completely ignore children when they are grieving and when this happens the child is not able to understand what life is all about which leaves them unable to deal with life and death during adulthood. The way that a child views the concept of death is developed during childhood.
Death anxiety is believed to begin early in a child’s life. Sometimes when a child is separated from their mother for a brief period, they express the distress of grief. During this time of life, children may feel deserted and that can cause a young child to interchange life and death (Glass, Jr., 1991).
As children get older into their middle and later years of childhood, they replace their separation fears with the fear of death and possibly become fearful of experiencing pain and being buried themselves. They will sometimes display some of this fear through questioning, sleep disturbances, or being unsettled about their increased fear of death (Glass, Jr., 1991).
In later childhood and adolescence, children tend to adopt a more adult way of thinking about death and look at it as being irreversible and universal even though their own death is far away. They may at this time have anxiety about death. That anxiety is thought to be like the same anxiety about death that people experience in adulthood (Glass, Jr., 1991).
Grief Stages: What Happens When Children Experience Loss
When a child experiences a loss, their performance and behavior in school changes. It is said that they will often miss class, have incomplete assignments, have an inferior quality of work, show rebellious behavior, or even go into depression (Glass, Jr., 1991).
When the loss a child has experienced is significant, they will sometimes feel helpless and afraid and even will want to go back to a time in their childhood where they felt protected from death or loss (Glass, Jr., 1991).
Adolescents will show anger as a form of expression because it gives them a sense of power to counteract their real feelings of helplessness. Older children and adolescents also express sadness and loneliness. Older children may not be able to express their feelings with anyone; they believe that they must comfort other family members while they are sad or shocked, which causes them to suppress their own emotions and experience unresolved grief (Glass, Jr., 1991).
Even guilt is an emotion that is associated with death. The symptoms of Uncomplicated Bereavement are sometimes seen in children when they are going through the grieving process and how they are adjusting to the death of a loved one.
The Difference Between Child and Adult Grief
Children are believed to interpret death differently than the way that adults do, so it is beneficial for family members to recognize and understand the uniqueness of childhood grief. Children may not even benefit from the support that an adult would. The main factor behind why a child may interpret death differently than an adult is based on the child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development (Paris, Carter, Day, & Armsworth, 2009).
These factors will predict how the child perceives death and the way they respond to grief and trauma. Children will process their feelings of grief repeatedly as they develop and understand their loss, which causes them to have their grief reactions last longer than the time that adults go through (Paris, Carter, Day, & Armsworth, 2009).
Spirituality and LossChildren who are spiritual or believe in God may have a difference in the way that they grieve as well. Children will sometimes have images that they confuse with death when their parents or other adults say things like “the deceased is lost, in a deep sleep, on a long journey or taken by God to be an angel in heaven” (Moriarty, 1978).
It is recommended that parents use the word “dead” instead of other words incorrectly so that the child can understand the concept. Taking a child to the funeral or celebration of life service can expose the child to those who can be supportive through the loss, such as friends and family. Taking them to these services also helps them see exactly what happens there so that they can lose some of the mystery surrounding the situation or any fear they may have about what happens to a person’s physical body after death.
It should be left up to the child if they would like to attend the services or not though, as they should not be forced to go. Children may often feel guilty about their family member passing away especially if it is a sibling as if they contributed to their death in some way through their thoughts or actions.
Coping with the Symptoms of Grief and Loss
Adults who have relationships with children who are experiencing the symptoms of grief and loss can help the child express their feelings by helping them through different intentional processes. Here are a few ways that adults can be a great support system for the children in their lives.
- Encourage the child to draw or write out their feelings.
- Give the child the space they need to play and express their feelings.
- Have conversations with the child about their feelings, removing ideas that the child is going through the situation on their own.
- Expose the child to other children who have experienced grief or loss (via groups or camps)
- Help the child find ways to remember the person who has passed away.
These are just a few examples of things that may show the child that the adult in their life supports them and is open to their expression of grief. The parent may need to have their own support system also if they are experiencing the same loss as the child.
Counseling for Children Dealing with Grief Stages
Grief counseling can be something for the entire family of someone who has experienced the loss or for those who are supporting a child who experienced the loss. In some instances, only the child will see a counselor to help them understand and express their feelings about the loss. During grief counseling, the counselor will use some of the techniques described above but also listen to the symptoms the child is experiencing in case other mental health concerns are secondary to the loss.
The grief counselor will be another person to help the child through their grief stages. Parents and those who work with children need to be sensitive to their emotional and physical reactions to the death of loved ones, therefore they need a safe place to acquire the tools to express what they are feeling and how to cope with their grief if they are struggling through this process at home.
There are many counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling equipped to work with children and grief and loss symptoms. So, if grief stages are hard to move through for your child and your family, a counselor is ready to supply the unique support they need.
Paris, M. M., Carter, B. L., Day, S. X., & Armsworth, M. W. (2009). Grief and Trauma in Children After the Death of a Sibling. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 71-80.
“Shame”, Courtesy of Ksenia Makagonova, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Devotions”, Courtesy of Samantha Sophia, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “What to draw…?”, Courtesy of Daiga Ellaby, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dusk”, Courtesy of Jan Ranft, Unsplash.com, CC0 License