The Grieving Child: Part One
by Deb Sims, MS,RNCS,LCSW
I was twelve when my father died. Thirty-nine years later, I look back and realize that at that time, children were thought of as invisible when it came to grief. But in actuality, children grieve just as adults do. Each child's journey through the grief process is unique. There are no rules on how it should be done correctly. However, there are some guidelines. It is my hope in writing this article that no other child or parent will never have to travel the grief road alone, as I did.
I lived through the MYTHS of childhood grief. They are as follows:
- It is assumed that children do not grieve or grieve only at a certain age.
Actually, children grieve at any age. However, their developmental stage determines how it is manifested. We'll speak more about the developmental stages later in this article.
- Death is the only major loss a child or adolescent will ever experience.
Any loss is a death process to a child. The loss of a pet, a divorce, and a move are all traumatic events and if a family member has died these losses may cause re-grieving. Re-grieving is a re-experiencing of a past loss. It intensifies the experience.
- It is appropriate to shield children from tragedy.
I remember the minister telling me of my father's death. I had no idea what he was saying. His words were so vague and obscure that I didn't know he was telling me my father was dead. I walked back into the classroom to get my books and the little boy who sat next to me said, "I'm sorry your father died." That's when I knew what had happened. Standing in the middle of a silent classroom of peers, I learned what an adult couldn't tell me, my father had died.
- Children should either always attend funerals or never attend.
It really needs to be a child or adolescent choice. Rituals help with closure but each child is a unique individual. They need to be supported and educated in what will happen to participate in what is right for them.
- Loss fades quickly for a child.
No one gets over a significant loss. We can accept it, adjust and learn to live with it but it doesn't go away. The fact that a child can play fools others into thinking that grief is over. The reality is children cannot tolerate long periods of sadness. The grief is not over and may be acted out in other ways.
- Children are permanently scarred by early, significant loss.
With love, support and a healthy atmosphere most people, including children, are resilient and can learn to live with loss.
- Talking is the most effective tool for helping children and adolescents deal with grief.
There is value in talking but for children and adolescents other creative outlets work best. Creative modes that are helpful are play, art, dance, music, activity and rituals. All of these are needed to express grief and loss.
- Helping children and adolescents deal with loss is the responsibility of the family.
Do you remember earlier, I mentioned I was told to be strong and take care of my mother? Children need support from the family. They especially heal if the surviving parent doesn't abandon them. However, they truly need a network of individuals including family, school, possibly church or youth organizations, and hospice if a long-term illness is involved. Many times the family is too busy just taking care of themselves.
Debbie Sims is a Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist in Adult Psychiatric Nursing, has a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She maintains a private practice in counseling but her devotion is to her position as Editor for Beyond Indigo an Internet web site for those who are grieving.