Listening and Learning part 2: processing grief with children

This weeks blog post is submitted by guest contributor, Tanya Pritt. We hope you enjoy her piece and we look forward to future contributions from Tanya.

A couple months ago I wrote about the death of my first grandchild who was just three days old. Grief continues to come in waves and as we approach his expected due date we are all struck with the pain of a lost life in our family. In my role as the director of Family Recovery Nonprofit, Inc., I work with mothers and children as well as adolescents. Their stories of grief and loss are as painful as mine. We work with children up to six years old in the women’s program who have experienced the loss of a parent, grandparent, or sibling. We have learned that their grief varies depending on the developmental stage of the child and who they lost.

Young children express their grief differently than older children and adults. The loss of a parent impacts their feelings of safety and stability. The loss of a sibling, especially a newborn whom they haven’t been able to bond with is shocking, confusing and scary. Where other family members had been joyous and plan-full of the pending birth, the shock of losing the baby born premature leaves everyone reeling. The normal feelings and communication among members are replaced with hushed tones and quiet, soft crying to moments of debilitating sobbing. These reactions are normal but to the child they are confusing. My (step) grand-daughter witnessed her mother’s and my son’s grief and became withdrawn, even with family members. She, a new eight years old, is so attune to her mother’s feelings that she clings to her side. She was even quieter, more shy than normal. She has only recently begun some of her activities that she had stopped following her brother’s death two plus months ago.

It’s hard to prepare for losses such as we have experienced. There is an innate denial that anything like this would ever happen to us. And, that said, there seems to be a place in parenting classes that could address grief and loss in an academic way to acquaint parents with what will surely happen during the time they are raising their children. Parents could become aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family, as well as danger signals that can impact behavior later. Most child and adolescent psychiatrists agree that it is normal during the weeks following the death for some children to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive. Long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief is unhealthy for all family members and can later surface in more severe behavioral and emotional problems.

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In our family, my son and his wife could not plan or have a memorial service for the baby. We all accepted this as their choice and as their limit in the experience. That said, as family members we have individually responded with some sort of memoriam to honor our baby. Some of us will get tattoos; others will get together and talk, others will offer prayer and remembrances at family gatherings and annual celebrations. This works for us. Other families might have funerals and the questions arise, “what do I do when my child doesn’t want to go to a funeral?” Children who are frightened about attending funerals should not be forced to attend, however, some type of remembrance is always recommended.

Kimberly L. Keith, an expert on children’s grief describes the grief stages as: Children’s grief comes in stages just like the grief an older child or adult experiences. And, as adults, the grief process is neither linear nor cyclical; it progresses through and back and forth and is reawakened with each new loss to some degree.

Disorganization – Initial expressions of grief in children range from regression, temper tantrums, and exaggerated fears in younger children to physical symptoms, lack of concentration, and mood swings in older children. The disorganization of early grief is a true crisis for children, but parents and loved ones can help the child through this stage.

Transition – Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair follow the stress and chaotic behaviors of the disorganization stage. Many children will exhibit true depression. More common are symptoms of withdrawal, aggression, and giving up in school.

Reorganization – When painful feelings are expressed their emotional energy wanes, and detachment becomes possible. During this stage children have more energy and motivation for moving forward to a positive resolution of their grief.

Though children’s grief follows this progression, it is complicated by the circular nature of grief. If you’ve experienced grief in your life, you know this to be true. Just when you have moved forward in your resolution of grief, a reminder of the loss floods you with emotions that bring you right back to feelings of despair and great sorrow. Adults can recognize and understand what is happening with their emotions; children often cannot. Parents must recognize the circular nature of grieving to help their child through difficult times during their development.

The final consideration in helping children live through grief is the developmental stage of the child. It’s important to note that a grieving child’s developmental stage may lag behind his chronological age. Regression is expected and developmental accomplishments take longer to achieve.

Preschoolers can express grief in a variety of ways that includebedwetting, temper tantrums, crying/sometimes excessive, emotional dis-regulation, regressing back to thumb-sucking (if this was a prior behavior), clinging to a parent/or both, behaviors that include stubbornness and fears that may include fears of losing a parent.

Helping preschooler’s and young children with their grief includes answering their questions, simply and honestly with respect to their age and encouraging them to share thoughts feelings. In a time where time itself seems to stand still it is important to maintain some routine, some normalcy. This does not mean “business as usual” but rather consistency with rules and attempts to engage the child, nurture them, and hold them. As painful as it is for all members, it is necessary to communicate with each other, helping the child communicate their feelings. As odd as it may seem, play is important. Especially role-play (dolls/action figures) can help a child communicate thoughts and feelings. Teach the words that identify feelings.

Elementary school-age children express grief some of the same ways at home and away from the home either developing or enhancing school related problems. They may have trouble paying attention or they may appear preoccupied or worried. They may not sleep well and be ill-prepared for the school day. Consultations with the teacher are necessary as the teacher is your first line of support when your child is at school.

Hospice states:

“When a family member dies, children react differently from adults. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible – a belief reinforced by cartoon characters who “die” and “come to life” again. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know.

Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.

The person who has died was essential to the stability of the child’s world, and anger is a natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability or a variety of other behaviors. Often the child will show anger towards the surviving family members.

After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. The child may temporarily become more infantile, demanding food, attention and cuddling, and talking “baby talk.”

Younger children believe they are the cause of what happens around them. A young child may believe a parent, grandparent, brother or sister died because he or she had once “wished” the person dead. The child feels guilty because the wish “came true.” Some danger signals to watch for:

  • an extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events.
  • inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone.
  • acting much younger for an extended period.
  • excessively imitating the dead person.
  • repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person.
  • withdrawal from friends.
  • sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school.

These warning signs indicate that professional help may be needed. A child and adolescent psychiatrist can help the child accept the death and assist the survivors in helping the child through the mourning process.”

Learning to process grief is a normal part of living and grief does not always have to be related to the loss of a loved one. Grief can be indicative of a move from the area resulting in a change of friends/schools or a friend’s move. Children are resilient and learn to manage grief and loss symptoms from the adults in their immediate world. Information regarding children and grief are many. Trust Hospice for working through the loss of a loved one.

Our family is surviving, my granddaughter has excellent parenting and will survive as well.

 Tanya has been the Director of Milestones for the past 21 years.  She’s  been working in the field of addictions for over 30 years.