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About grief

Do Children Grieve?
There are plenty of myths about how children and teens deal with grief: that they don’t grieve, that they get over losses quickly, and that they should be shielded from the loss.

All children grieve, though they may react differently than adults, and each family member may grieve differently. Their responses vary based on their developmental level and life experiences.

A child or teen may mourn in bits and pieces—anger and/or sadness, with intermittent periods of appearing just fine. This can be confusing to adults, who may worry that the child isn’t mourning or is denying the event.

Under age four or five, a child may show little interest or ignore the death, perhaps treating it like an absence or like the person is asleep. It is seen as temporary or reversible. They may ask over and over when the person will return. Their feelings about the loss are usually expressed through play, using displacement (“that puppet/doll/puppy/kid is feeling scared.”) Changes in eating, sleeping, toileting patterns, as well as more moodiness and clinginess, are common.

Ages 5-8 tend to show an increased interest in death, with more questions and worries, but again, their feelings are usually expressed through play rather than through direct communication. They may feel guilt and engage in magical thinking that the death was punishment for their bad behavior or their anger at the person who died. Children of this age may still believe that death is reversible. They tend to complain more about physical symptoms, aches, fatigue, etc., which are often physical expressions of their grief.

Ages 9-10 and older usually have a more rational understanding of death and the fact that it is permanent. Grief may be expressed through difficulties with concentration and motivation as well as physical symptoms, irritability, difficulties with sleeping, etc. Some will act out in school or at home as they struggle with their grief and anger. The anger will often be directed at the surviving family members.

In addition to the possible reactions listed just above, teens may think they have to act grown-up and not cry. They tend to be more aware of the present and future losses brought about by the death than would a younger child. They may feel pressure to fill the void in the family left by the family member’s death. Their primary goal at this stage is to fit in with their peers, so they may not want to focus on what makes them different, eg. the death of their mother/father/sibling. They may distance from their family, moving toward friends in a more typical adolescent manner, despite it being a time when other family members may seek more closeness and turn inward. Sleeping, appetite, concentration, and motivation are all areas that can be affected.

A key factor in how a child adapts to loss is the surviving parent/caretaker’s availability and ability to be reliable and comforting to the child or teen. 
Family members and friends may try to protect each other by not talking about the loss, but silence can be more haunting than words and keep the family apart emotionally at a time when they most need support.

Of course, personality style and coping skills before the loss are also big factors in an individual’s reaction over time. Feeling a sense of social support is extremely important to how the family fares. Families in which deaths are kept secret or who feel a sense of shame about the death tend to get less support, which makes the adjustment to their new reality that much harder. 

The Grief Process:
William Worden’s Tasks of Mourning provide a helpful framework for understanding the grief process:

ACKNOWLEDGE the reality of the death

FEEL the feelings, experience the pain of grief

ADJUST to a world that no longer includes the physical presence of the loved person

RE-ESTABLISH the relationship to the loved person in your mental and emotional life.

Ashley Davis Bush’s five stage model for grief is another helpful guide to keep in mind. (Transcending Loss, Berkley Books, 1997, www.ashleydavisbush.com). Keep in mind that stages are not necessarily linear.

SHOCK: Accepting the reality of the death

DISORGANIZATION: Facing, experiencing and expressing all of the grief-related feelings

RECONSTRUCTION: Adjusting to a world without your loved one

SYNTHESIS: Establishing an ongoing relationship with your loss and with your loved one, recognizing that you are forever changed

TRANSCENDENCE: Making the loss meaningful

More thoughts about the grief process:

Grief is all around us. Grief is normal. Grief is part of everyday. It is universal…It is healing and necessary to healing… It is natural, normal, very functional… The problem is, we all want to make it ‘better.’ … It’s not about fixing grief—because we can’t. We have to give it room.”

Dottie Ward Wimmer (She Came to Live Out Loud by Myra MacPherson)

As we pass through life events and stages, our grief may resurface, presenting new opportunities to mourn. 

It is helpful to anticipate grief “anniversary reactions” — events or ages, seasons or dates that serve as triggers of grief.  Other common triggers are birthdays, mother’s/father’s days, holidays, reaching the age of the parent’s death or diagnosis. Transition times, such as graduations, marriages, births, and the developmental stages of one’s own children can also spark waves of grief. Or it may be evocative smells, signs, or sounds that serve as triggers.

New losses often bring up old losses, but grief may also surface during a stable time, when a person can afford to mourn with less fear of abandonment and/or fear that they’ll fall apart.

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How Can I help?
There is no recipe or list that will “fix it,” but here are some things to consider:

Listen. Many, many people find it hard to listen because death evokes our own fears. Listening is an invaluable gift. It conveys your presence—that you are walking beside your loved one or friend on this difficult journey. Make yourself available to hear their stories, memories, and regrets. 

A common mistake is to shut off discussion with a well-intentioned comment such as “It’s ok,” “Don’t cry,” or “Be strong.” Some people even say, “It’s time to get over it.” Don’t contribute to the notion that there is a “right” way to grieve.

Help kids feel safe:  Give appropriate, honest information; help out with making sure basic needs are met; provide caring support to facilitate the re-establishment of routines.

Expressive arts, bibliotherapy, peer support, and the use of rituals (see below) can also help with healing.  

Does Grief Ever End?
People feel pressure to get over their grief, both self-imposed and by others/society. A USA Today poll asked the length of the grief process. The answer: an average of two weeks! Do we ever finish grieving a loss? The intervals between the waves of grief lengthen over time, but the longing may not disappear. Ever.

It is important to debunk the myth that once the grief is “resolved,” that it will never come up again. Accept the setbacks as part of the progression. Think of honoring the grief and healing rather than fixing it or curing it. It is a lifelong process. The acute pain is not life long, but the impact of the loss is. 

Normal Grief
There is a wide range of normal reactions to loss. Other kinds of loss, such as loss due to divorce, moves, a loss of abilities due to illness or accident, etc., can also trigger some of these reactions. Below is a partial list.

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Ideas for Rituals for Healing through Grieving:
Rituals help give meaning to the loss. Here are some ideas, but there are infinite possibilities to make the ritual fit for your preferences and style. These can be done at any time.

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