When there is a death, children are often neglected mourners. But in order to adapt, adjust, and heal, children need guidance and support from significant adults.
“My most memorable funeral was when I was 16 years old. It was memorable because I did not go,” recalls Joy Johnson.
That summer, her close friend from childhood, Steve Thomas, had drowned. “His funeral was held in the big church across the alley from my home, but never having been to a funeral, I assumed they were terrible and frightening and to be avoided at all costs…So while the service was going on, I put on my own swimsuit and washed my dad’s car in the backyard, listening to the funeral music and letting my tears mix with water from the hose. For years, I regretted not going to the funeral, but I was young, and no one told me about saying goodbye.”
Johnson’s experience points to this sad reality: When there is a death, children are often neglected mourners. Adults lose sight of the fact that children grieve losses—those of a parent, grandparent, relative, friend, teacher, or coach. And when a child’s emotional needs are neglected, adults miss key opportunities to provide the guidance and support children need in order to adapt, adjust, and heal. Here are some commonsense answers about children and grief.
· When there has been a death, is it wise to shield a child from the loss? It is more upsetting to a child when issues about a death are silenced and neglected. Furthermore, it is impossible to protect children from life’s losses. Such shielding can increase fears and breed feelings of resentment and helplessness.
“If a death isn’t talked about, it indicates there isn’t a supportive environment for expressing feelings of loss,” says Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss.
Edelman was 17 when her mother died of breast cancer at 42. At the time, Edelman lived with her sister, brother, and father, but they never shared their pain and feelings. “We could meet each other’s physical needs but not the emotional ones, and we all suffered for it,” she says.
· How do children grieve? Whenever children encounter loss, they grieve. According to Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, “their grief is both alike and different from the grief experienced by adults.”
“Like adults, their reactions are individual and may be experienced on many different levels. They may experience grief as physical aches and pains. It may affect their behavior or their ability to concentrate or focus.
“Children may experience a range of feelings including sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, jealousy, loneliness, or even relief. Like adults, they may struggle spiritually to understand and find some sense of meaning in the loss.”
However, children’s grief also differs from that of adults. “Younger children may have a difficult time sustaining strong feelings,” Dr. Doka observes. “Because of this short feeling span, their moods may shift, and they may experience outbursts of anger or sadness.”
· What are signs or symptoms that a child is grieving? Some of the ways grief may be evident in a child include acting out behavior; tiredness or lack of energy; lack of appetite or excessive appetite; changes in grades; sleep disturbance; increased “accidents”; physical pains like headaches, stomachaches, and skin rashes; regressive behavior such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, and clinging.
· How seriously should grieving in children be treated? Always take the grief of a child seriously. Unlike adults, who may have more experience dealing with emotional blows, children are often breaking new emotional ground. They need and want the aid of caring adults. Create opportunities for a child to express his or her feelings about the loss. This can mean initiating conversations about the loss or suggesting the child write feelings in a diary or journal.
Sometimes a child’s grief can become complicated. If you see a combination of the following, find professional help (school counselor, therapist, clergy) for your child: persistent panic or fear; chronic misbehavior; drastic personality change; withdrawal from family and friends; suicidal thoughts or actions; drug or alcohol abuse.
· How can adults best help a grieving child? Adults ought to be guided by these four “Ts”—touch, talk, tears, time. Grieving children ought to be touched, hugged, and embraced frequently. This delivers important physical comfort to a child. They must also be given ample opportunities to talk, thereby expressing and exploring their feelings.
Children who weep should be affirmed for their tears. “It’s O.K. to cry; I’m sad too” is an excellent response from an adult. Finally, children need to know that time does bring healing, that they will not feel heavy sadness all their lives.
· Are there additional ways to help a grieving child? While there is great value in open verbal communication, children can also be helped through other creative ways of expression. For example, a child can be encouraged to write a letter, either to the deceased, about the deceased, to a survivor, or to God. Likewise, a child can be invited to draw a picture about some aspect of the loss and asked to explain their work of art. Other children might like to write poetry or even write their own music. These greatly aid a child to express grief and adapt to loss.
· Should children generally attend funerals? The best way to determine this is to ask the child and let him or her decide. Usually, children beyond age 4 can express themselves about whether they wish to attend a funeral or not. If a child indicates a willingness to participate in a funeral, parents should comply and offer all necessary support.
Heidi J. Schertz, a 10-year-old from Wisconsin, remembers what transpired when a 16-year-old family friend died. “I wanted to go to the funeral, but Mom and Dad told me it would be a hard, busy trip to Alabama and that they thought we’d [Heidi and her sisters] be better off at home. My granny came to baby-sit us,” she remembers.
“My granny is fun. It made me feel a little better to have her here, but I still wished I could have gone to the funeral. I thought it was really important to go, and I wish that Mom and Dad had listened to me.”
· Do children need advance explanation of what a funeral involves? Children will be less anxious if they can anticipate what to expect and what they may witness when attending a funeral. Such advance information, which should be communicated as simply and clearly as possible, can include everything from the location and size of the funeral home, to the facts that there will be flowers, a casket with a body, and people who may be crying. For younger children, simple statements of explanation such as these are sufficient:
- A funeral is a way to say “goodbye” to someone we love.
- The funeral home is a building or house where the bodies of people we love are taken care of.
- A casket is a nice box that holds the body.
- It is all right to look at the body.
· Should children see a parent grieving? Yes. Children who see their parents grieving openly learn to express, not repress, their own feelings. Healing takes place for children when they witness the open grief of important adults in their lives.
In his book Helping Children Cope With Grief, bereavement counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt notes: “The child’s ability to cope depends on the capacity of significant adults expressing their own grief and conveying to the child that they can express a full spectrum of feelings. The sharing of grief between parent and child assists the family in recognizing both the uniqueness and commonality of their experience.”
· Are children permanently scarred because of loss? Children are quite resilient. While the loss of a loved one can create a negative impact, the right type of support, love, and comfort from significant adults helps children to adjust and learn to live with loss.
Sensitive adults who make time for grieving children become instrumental in taking the black shroud off death and allowing the sun to once again shine in their lives.
Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and former newspaper reporter, is the author of nine books, most recently, Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001).