Grief Through A Child’s Eyes

istock_000004764042xsmallOften we hear grieving children referred to as the forgotten mourners. We don’t mean to neglect our children in grief, but as grieving adults our world is filled with making funeral arrangements, dealing with guests, submitting paperwork that follows a death, and trying to deal with our own grief on top of that.

Part of our grief process is to struggle with the fact that our loved one is never coming back, deciding whether we are ready to go back to work, trying to take care of basic family needs, house and yard responsibilities and dealing with our well meaning family and friends who think we need to get out more and want to cheer us up – when that’s the last thing we want to do.

So where does that leave our children? Do we have the time to answer their many questions surrounding the death? Do we have the patience to answer the same question that has been asked for the 15th time, or to gently extricate them as they cling to us while we’re trying to get into the bathroom? Being a grieving parent can be a big challenge. Maybe if we knew more about what our children were thinking and why they were behaving a certain way, it would help us to support them better in their grief.

We do know that very young children do not have the ability to think of death as permanent. This is why a parent might hear questions like, “When will they come back?” or “What is dead?” Or sometimes we may hear statements like, “When they’re done playing in heaven, they’ll come back.” or “My mom is coming back tomorrow.” How we talk to our children about death and dying is instrumental in the understanding they will have about their own personal loss experience. “Teachable moments” are great for these types of discussions. Take advantage of the opportunity when finding a dead bird or animal in the yard. Have the discussion about what it means to “be dead.” They need to know that people don’t “come back from being dead.” Let them know that when a person dies, their body doesn’t feel anymore, it doesn’t get hungry anymore, it doesn’t need sleep anymore. Depending on religious/cultural beliefs we can describe the “soul” as leaving the body to go to heaven, or wherever, and that the body can be considered like an empty shell. Like when a hermit crab leaves one shell for a different shell. Keep the explanations/answers simple and concrete.

We also know that children can developmentally regress – temporarily. So a seven-year-old may want to be held like a baby again, or start drinking from a bottle, or wet his bed, or become clingy and not want us out of his sight. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense to do this. When we were babies, everything was great. Our every need was taken care of. Our parents were always available and always kept us safe. We didn’t have a care in the world. One child explained to me that she liked being rocked to sleep and drinking from a bottle because it reminded her of being a baby and she liked that. When I asked what the best part of being a baby was, she responded, “I didn’t have to think about sad things when I was a baby.” Yes, life was good back then. The clinginess develops from a fear that if one family member died, who’s to say that another family isn’t going to die? So they are going to hold tight to us and never let us out of their sight. EVER! So parents have to deal with trying to go to the bathroom or take showers – privately, or trying to get the child to school or letting the parent leave for work. These situations produce some heavy battles in the home. But knowing why their behavior is occurring can be helpful in figuring out how to deal with it. The best intervention is constant reassurance, structure and consistency. Their little world has been rocked and it’s just going to take some time for them to calm down and learn to relax again, and to trust again. But parents, take heart – this is just temporary! Patience and consistency is called for here.

Finally, we know that children have imagination and “magical thinking,” but it doesn’t always have a good outcome. It is very common for children to think they had something to do with the loved one’s death. If they were a better child, if they didn’t argue, if they would have finished their dinner, if they didn’t yell “I hate you. I wish you were dead” – the loved one would still be here. This can be a very closely guarded secret in a child for fear they will be judged a bad person, or that they did indeed cause their loved one’s death. It may take a professional to tease this out of them, but once it’s out in the open we can let the children know that it wasn’t their fault. Again, we just need patience and consistency – we need to repeat the same thing over and over again to reassure the child.

Not all children see grief and loss the same way, but if we try to put ourselves in the child’s place – knowing what we know now – and ask ourselves, “Why is this child behaving this way?”, we might be able to get the answer and know how to best support our children in their grief – which will help us in our grief.

Diana Sebzda, MA, LPC, CT


8 Responses to Grief Through A Child’s Eyes

  • thank you Andrea for sharing your experiences. Your son sounds like a fine little guy that will be a great comfort to you. Last night my boy and I talked and both feel we are just waiting for something that will never come – for Scott to walk in and life start for us again. We talk in odd little bits about our loss, at unexpected times, and I go through each day automatically doing the things I always have done or am expected to do. The Boy, thankfully, has things he can look forward to independent of his parents, lots of ‘first’s’ that are coming his way, so his ‘waiting’ is not continuous as is mine.

  • Thank you, JoAnne – same to you!

  • Andrea,

    thank you so much for your feedback to Lee. I will be sure it is passed on.
    I send you love, hope and inspiration.
    JoAnne Funch

  • Lee, I’m relatively new to all this, but I’ll give the best advice I can from my experience. My husband died in November of 08. My son, who turned 5 in May, is maturing at a similar rate as your son. It wasn’t long after Matt died, that my little 4 year old told me he’s going to be the daddy now (my daughter turned 2 in May). I reassured him that he doesn’t need to be the daddy – he needs to stay my little boy, but his actions show that he’s taking on his role pretty seriously. He still does little boy things in little boy ways, but has matured well beyond his years in many ways. Don’t be scared for your son… As long as you see that he is not withdrawing or not expressing his feelings at all. He might be expressing his grief in other ways… My son will have an unexplainable meltdown over something really silly, and sometimes I chalk that up to grief catching up with him. Just make sure your son knows that you are willing to listen when he’s ready to talk, and maybe let him know that if he prefers, he can talk to a friend or other relative instead. ((((HUGS))))

  • Thank you for this website and essay. But my 12 year old is in another type of grief. He is maturing years each day before my eyes. He stood at the door at the funeral home, shaking each and every hand, asking names when he didn’t know people, and thanking them for coming, saying his dad would have been honored. Yet 41 days later, he has only cried and spoken of his loss twice with me – the night his dad died and the night I forced the issue with him a few weeks later. He suddenly agreeably helps me with daily tasks about the house, tries to comfort and distract me when I loose composure and even when I try to hide to cry it out. He willing goes with me on errands about town, trying to be good company, asking for nothing at all, except not to be forced to talk about the fact Dad is never going to be in our lives again.
    Is he coping better than I, or should I be scared for him?

  • Such good comments and great reminders about grieving children. They do need to be comforted and talked with about the loss. I remember one story where a 12-year-old girl loss her dad and the adults would never talk about it with her, fearing that she would be sad. But she really needed to talk. She grew up bitter and resentful because the adults in her life wouldn’t let her talk about her dad. Children, however seeming “resistant”, do need to grieve, too.

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