Often adults expect grieving children to simply handle their grief easier perhaps because they feel children are versatile and can ‘bounce back’ more quickly than they. But we must remember children need to work through their grieving process, too.
It can be quite difficult to attend to others’ needs when we ourselves are in shock, feeling depress, or dealing with anger and guilt. But if we dismiss children’s feelings their grief will surface in other manners at other times.
This may be a child’s first grief experience and it can be especially frightening if there is no adult assisting them through the process. If you as a parent or caregiver are attending to your own grief, there is no shame in asking the assistance of a close friend or relative to ‘be there’ for your children.
Children have many feelings, both emotional and physical, along the grief journey:
Crying, fits of anger/rage, rebelliousness, acting out.
Inability to concentrate, especially with classwork.
Tendency toward extremes – overeating vs. loss of appetite, no interest in classwork vs. overly devoted toward studies, inability to sleep vs. long stretches under the covers.
Fear of the surviving parent/caregiver’s death and their being abandoned.
Fear of the changes that have occurred in their household, their body, their environment, their structure, their routine.
Fear of new, sometimes, unwelcomed adults, i.e. police, district attorneys, media, in the case of violent deaths.
Fear of the future without the beloved person who died.
Fear of a new identity and a new role to play in the family structure. They may have been the younger child and now they are the only child. How will they measure up to their deceased sibling? Are they responsible for taking over their ‘place’?
Fear of separation from their parents/caregivers, both emotionally, and physically. When Mom sleeps all day and Dad works late as their ways of coping, children become isolated, lonely and feel unprotected, no longer safe and secure emotionally and physically.
Fear that they may have somehow caused the death either by something they once said to the person (“I wish you were dead”), or because facts have not be given to the child leading them to imagine the worse scenario.
Especially in the case of tragic death, fear that it will happen to them, too or that the killer will not be caught and come back to harm or kill them too.
Possible feelings of shame regarding the way their loved one died as in the case of suicide, homicide, drug overdose and others. How the death is perceived within the home will have a significant bearing on the effectiveness in which a child deals with these issues outside among their peers.
Guilt that they are alive and their loved one is dead. Yet they can feel jealous that so much attention is being paid to the deceased instead of them. Inside they scream ‘But I’m alive…what about me?!’
Uncertain how to act around adults because one minute they are happy and the next they are depressed. This inconsistent pattern can confuse children.
Resentment that they may have been forced into a reversed role – their parent is now the child and they the parent. This added burden denies the youngster of their childhood, something they can never recover.
Clinging to the surviving parent to the point of not being able to sleep alone.
We must remember that children need to learn that grieving is perfectly normal. Seeking out a support group for them will reassure them that other children are also experiencing similar feelings. They will learn that their reactions and responses following the death of a loved one are not unusual. All family members grieve differently.
One family described a mail box they built and placed on the dining room table. At times it had been difficult for certain members of their family to verbally express their deep sense of loss and pain.
So the father built a mailbox as a vehicle to communicate with each other. When the son wanted to describe his feelings about the murder of his brother, he would write his father a letter and place it in the box. And then the father would write back. For this family, it was an excellent avenue to exchange concerns and grief which could not yet be shared in any other manner.
Don’t be surprised if a surviving sibling begins to ear the clothing of her deceased sibling. They need to be close, to have the scent near, is very important to many children. They may also take on some characteristics of the deceased sibling – combing their hair the same style, listening to their favorite music, watching their favorite televisions shows and movies – anything to feel closer to them. While it may be painful at times for you, it brings them comfort.
At times the needs of grieving children, especially when your pain is overwhelming, can be a challenge. But time spent now answering questions and explain what has occurred will decrease the possibility of their imagining all sorts of things which may or may not have occurred.
Many sibling have told me how difficult it was to learn the truth later having been told something altogether different when the deal originally occurred. Not only did it lead to a sense of betrayal that could have been eliminated, but they then questioned if everything else they were told about the death was true.
Try to spend individual time with each of your surviving children. You needn’t hide your sorrow or tears. This will give them permission to also cry. Acting as though nothing has occurred and life must go on as before, is only delaying grief which can come back to haunt everyone. Life is not as it was before and children know this and can feel this in their surroundings.
Be kind to yourself and to the younger people in your life. Try to remember back to your first grief experience and examine what helped you and what did not help you. Determine how you wished someone had approached you back then and mold those memories into a better strategy for your young ones.
Utilize the excellent books for grieving children, starting with my comprehensive Understanding Your Grieving Child’s Heart After a Loved One’s Death, which I wrote to help adults learn how to help our young ones. If possible, discuss death and grief with them long before it intimately affects them.
Most importantly, employ the help of family, friends and support groups in assisting your child through the grieving process. Right now, you may not be able to do it all – nobody expects you to. Recognizing that children grieve too is the first step in assisting them through a healthy grieving experience.
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Mary Mac specializes in helping executives and entrepreneurs understand and navigate through their grieving process after a significant tragedy. If you are suffering emotionally, physically, financially and/or spiritually because you've tried to take care of everyone else but yourself, this is your time and this is the place.