By Jacquie Atkins, MS
GRIEF. Reading this word may cause an unexpected, and immediate physical or emotional reaction. Some of us may experience a knot in our stomachs, sadness or fear wash over us, or maybe even sweaty hands or a racing heart. We may find ourselves almost immediately reminded of a time in which we experienced the death of a parent, spouse, or even a child. It could be the memory of a lost job, a lost love, or a house fire. All of these are times in our lives that may potentially cause a period of grieving. Grief, by definition, means to cause a person intense sorrow. Humans feel grief when something terribly sad happens, and this definition applies not only to adults, but for children and adolescents as well. The word “grief” comes from the Latin word gravare which means heavy and weighty. Therefore, we can think of grief as being a heavy, weighty sadness which is most often associated with mourning the death of someone we love. However, it can follow any kind of significant loss. The definition of grief may be the same for adults, adolescents, and children but the experience and process of grieving may be very different across these age groups. How do we know if a child or adolescent is experiencing grief? What can we do to best support our children both compassionately and effectively in times of loss?
As the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works: my soul knows it very well.” Being wonderfully made includes the happy, the sad, the mourning, the anger, the fear and the grief- ALL the parts of us that are sometimes difficult to understand as children (and sometimes even adults).
Children (up to 11 years old)
Children respond to grief depending on their stage of cognitive and psychosocial development, language capacities, and coping skills at the time of the specific occurrence of loss. A preschooler’s ability to process loss is quite different from an elementary aged child, middle schooler, or older adolescent. At earlier developmental levels, for example, children are “egocentric,” they are the center of their world. A typical reaction in early to middle childhood to the death of a family member could be one of false guilt, where the child may believe he or she somehow caused the event- especially a death or divorce. For example, young children who hear their parents fighting over them may believe that they must have caused Daddy or Mommy to leave or die. It is essential that caregivers educate themselves in the ways children at different stages of development understand and process loss in order to respond sensitively to questions and needs they have. Whether the children are consciously aware or able to verbalize them, understanding what is really going on under the surface will help the caregiver to better sympathize to the child’s natural and appropriate developmental grieving.
We must also remember that grief includes a myriad of issues beyond major losses such as death of a family member, separation or divorce, or moving away. We should be perceptive to our children’s experience of loss, whether we view it as major or not. Examples could include changing schools or teachers, death of a pet (even a goldfish or gerbil), a friend moving away or being the last child picked for the team in recess. Learning to communicate openly and compassionately with our children in the smaller losses of daily life paves the way for trust to be in place when unexpected or bigger losses occur.
The actual words we use to explain death and loss should also take into account the child’s age and developmental stage. As adults, we may tend to use euphemisms such as “Grandpa is asleep” or “Fido has gone away” to somehow soften the blow of the reality of a death. Younger children may take these things literally and begin to fear “going to sleep” or a parent “going away” to the store or for a weekend. Many parents also feel the need to shelter children from experiences such as funerals, as if they will somehow traumatize the child. Yet, how many of us recall feeling cheated if we were deprived of the opportunity to be with our family members during times of grief, sharing in good byes and then having a loving adult patiently answer our questions? Giving our children an appropriate understanding of death teaches them not only the reality of loss in this life, but how to grieve in healthy ways. Young children may expect the person or pet to return if we do not explain, in terms they can understand, that this is a permanent event. For Christians in particular, times of loss are precious opportunities to help children understand the finality of physical death while giving them real time understanding and applications of the scriptures about the assurances we have in God’s promises, not just in eternal life, but in His comfort and love for us. Explanations should be kept simple, in terms children will understand for their age to avoid confusion and unnecessary fears.
Adolescent (11 – 18 years old)
If left unattended, grief in adolescents can become severe. Reactions in this age group have been linked to depression, guilt, low self-esteem, poor performance in school, and poor interpersonal relationships. This age group is typically more prone to withdrawing, spending an unusual amount of time on social media, and isolating while in the process of grieving. Providing honest information regarding the situation as it pertains to the adolescent is respectful and opens lines of communication for them to feel valued and understood. Adolescents will model what they see the adults around them doing. An adult’s willingness to be open with their own emotions gives the adolescent permission to share their feelings. As the adults, we then create an atmosphere of safety to begin a discussion about the situation without forcing the conversation. We invite them into the conversation, and then patiently watch for moments when they are ready to talk. It may be at an inconvenient time, but let’s seize the opportunity to connect when they are ready! Because part of an older adolescent’s task is to begin to emancipate and become more independent, we may need to help them identify other adults in whom they could also confide, such as a youth pastor, school counselor, or professional grief therapist.
Loving and age sensitive support to children and adolescents gives them a life skill to process later times of grief in their lives successfully. Children and adolescents need to know that it is okay for them to feel sad, to cry, and to freely express their feelings within safe boundaries. As their caregivers, we often want to take away our children’s pain and have all the right answers but that is just not possible. The most important thing we should remember is embodied in (John 11:35): “Jesus wept.” He wept with others in their losses. He understands and desires to compassionately heal our broken, sad hearts (Isaiah 61:1-4). As author and speaker Esther Fleece succinctly reminds us in her book, No More Faking Fine, “Nothing can prevent our laments from reaching God’s ears. Even if everyone in the world ignores our cries and minimizes our pain, God hears us.” When we pray with our children, we come alongside them in receiving the loving mercy of a God who hears our pain, and together we can walk through a season of grief.
Finally, as adults doing our best to care for children when we, too, may be in the midst of great loss, we must be aware that our own self-care is essential for us to have sufficient emotional resources to be available to our children. None of us grieves well alone. We all need compassionate others to walk with us as we mourn. Friends, pastoral care, and often professional support should be sought and received during these times. Grief that is unattended to can sometimes spiral into deeper despair, depression, and suicidal thoughts or behavior. Whenever any of these patterns are noticed, they should not be ignored and professional help should be sought through a family doctor, licensed counselor, or local hospital.
Jacquie Atkins is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Associate who works at Life Resources, a non-profit Christian emotional and relational health resource center located in Mount Pleasant, S.C. She is available to speak to your group or organization on a variety of topics. For a list of additional resources on children and grief, including age-appropriate books, please visit Jacquie’s profile at www.myliferesources.org.