Children Love, Children Grieve

A child old enough to love, is old enough to grieve.

Alan Wolfelt

A common myth is that children do not grieve. Death, divorce, relocation, separation from a caregiver, and disruption in social connections are all losses that might affect your child. Children can experience loss at home, at school, and in their social groups.

Developmentally, your child cannot stay in sadness for prolonged periods of time. A child may go from playing and laughing, to crying and feeling upset. You might find that your child will exhibit a variety of emotions during their time of grief.

Common grief reactions in children include:

  • Sadness
  • Fear of that loss occurring again
  • Anger
  • Insecurity
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Denial
  • Guilt
  • and even, at times, Relief.

To support your grieving child, it is important to consider the following:

Type of Loss: Grieving is more complicated after a sudden or traumatic loss. Children affected by multiple losses may have a heightened grief response. Remember, there is no one right way to grieve and children will grieve in their own way and time.

Developmental & Emotional Functioning: Developmental level and emotional functioning will affect a child’s ability to experience, cope, and express feelings related to a loss. In fact, issues related to a loss may re-emerge at later developmental stages.

  • 3-5 years old – Children under the age of five will struggle to understand the permanency of a loss. Abstract concepts related to the loss may be confusing.
  • 5-9 years old – Children aged five to nine will begin to understand the permanency of a loss. They may start to become hypervigilant surrounding physical and emotional safety.
  • 9-12 years old – Children in this age range begin to develop the emotional and intellectual ability to understand a loss.
  • 12-18 years old – Adolescents are able to abstractly process a loss. Losses can complicate normal developmental tasks. It is not unusual for teens to deny the impact of the loss and avoid direct conversation about the loss.

Understanding Childhood Tasks of Grief: Dr. Sandra Fox from the Boston Medical Center developed a model called the ‘Good Grief Program’. This helpful framework can help adults support a child affected by loss.

  • Understanding: It is important for children to tell their story. The purpose of this task is to help children make sense of the loss at an age-appropriate level, receive age-appropriate information about the loss and to understand the impact of the loss. By discussing the loss, the reality of the event becomes more permanent.
  • Grieving: Expressing feelings related to the loss will be important for your child. The intensity of feelings your child might experience will differ depending the type of loss, your child’s developmental functioning, and the relationship that was affected by the loss.
  • Commemorating: Remembering, either formally or informally, will be very important for your child. All relationships, all life, and all connections have value and your child will need support to develop ways to remember those positive moments.
  • Going On: Supporting your child in living well and creating meaning will be important. Focus on helping your child return to regular activities, while still leaving emotional space to discuss and grieve the loss, as needed.

Adult Reactions: Your reaction to the loss will play an especially important role in shaping your child’s perception of the situation. You are your child’s emotional barometer. Whether your feelings are hidden or apparent, your child will be attuned to your emotional reactions. Your child will watch for verbal and nonverbal cues for whether discussing the loss is bearable by you. If it is unbearable for you to talk about, it will be just as unbearable for your child to name feelings related to their loss in your presence. One of the greatest gifts you can give to your child during this time, is the invitation to express their grief and communicate feelings.

Each child’s grief experience is unique. Providing the space for your child to speak the unspeakable will enable healing for both of you. And, while your child may not remember what you say, they will never forget the way you make them feel and the love you provide.

Amy Mack, LICSW works with children, teens and families in our Upper Valley and New London offices. Amy has specialized training in Play Therapy and Child-Parent Psychotherapy. Amy strives to create a collaborative, warm, and comfortable environment and tailors therapy to the client’s unique needs.

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