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

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