Understanding Your Grieving Child

Often adults expect children to simply handle their grief easier perhaps because they feel children are resilient and can “bounce back” more quickly than they. They tend to immediately put children back into their routines as a way of somehow stabilizing them.

But it is important to remember children must work through their grieving process, too. It can be quite difficult to attend to a young person’s needs when we, ourselves, are in shock, feeling depressed, 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 the first grief experience a child is dealing with and it can be especially frightening if there is no adult assisting them through the process. If you as 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. Let’s look at the emotional and physical challenges.

Emotional Response

• Shock, helplessness, confusion, disbelief, vulnerability, depression, withdrawal.

• Crying, fits of anger/rage, rebelliousness, acting out.

• Inability to concentrate, tendency toward extremes: loss of appetite vs. overeating, no interest in classwork vs. overly devoted toward studies, inability to sleep vs. long stretches under the covers.

• Fear of a 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 before and now they are the only child. How will they measure up to their deceased sibling? Are they responsible for taking over their “place” in the family?

• Fear of losing their parents/caregivers, both emotionally and physically. When Mom sleeps all day and Dad works late as their ways of coping, the children become isolated, lonely, and feel unprotected, no longer safe and secure.

• Fear that they may have somehow caused the death either by something they once said to the person, for example “I wish you were death,” or because facts have not been given to the child and they imagine the worse scenario.

• Especially in the case of tragic death, fear that it will happen to them, too; that the killer will not be caught and come back for them.

• Possible feeling of shame regarding the way their loved one died, as in the case of suicide or homicide. How the death is perceived within the home and community 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.

• Feelings of jealousy 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 may be happy and the next they are depressed. These inconsistent patterns confuse children.

• Resentment that they may be forced into a reversed role: their parent is now the child, and they are the parent. This added burden denies the youngster of their childhood, something they can never recover.

Physical Response

• Stomach cramps, nauseau, vomiting, headaches, dizziness.

• Concerns about nightmares and daydreams.

• In serious cases, self-mutilation.

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 are not unusual in the way they are responding to the death.

If we cannot provide the care our children need because of our own grief, it is important to enlist the support of others. Our children need the time and space to grieve, just as we do.

All families’ members grieve differently. At times it can be difficult for certain members of a family to verbally express their deep sense of loss and pain. So, for one such family, the father built a mailbox as a vehicle to communicate with each other and sat it on the dining room table. When his son wanted to describe his feelings to his Dad about the murder of his brother, he wrote the Dad a letter. 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 wear the clothing of her deceased sibling. The 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 – styling their hair the same way, listening to their favorite music, anything to feel closer to them. While it may be painful for you to see this, know that 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 all their questions and explaining what has occurred will decrease the possibility of their imagining all sorts of things which may or may not have occurred. Many siblings have been told me how difficult it was to learn the truth many months and even years later, having been told something altogether different when the death originally occurred. Not only did it lead to a sense of betrayal that could have been avoided, but they then questioned if everything else they had been told about the death was true.

Try to spend individual time with each of your surviving children. You need not hide your sorrow and tears. Expressing these emotions 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 usually comes back to haunt everyone later on. Life is not as it was before and even the youngest children can feel this in their surroundings.

Be kind to yourself and to the younger people in your life. This may be their first experience with death and it can be frightening. 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.

Most importantly, employ the help of family, friends, teachers, counselors 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 grief experience.

Mary M. McCambridge (AskMaryMac.com and MaryMcCambridge.com) is an award-winning and best-selling author, executive life and grief coach, and speaker, specializing in homicide bereavement and grieving children. She helps bereaved adults around the world through her websites and created the Foundation for Grieving Children (www.F4GC.com) which raises funds and provides grants for the benefit of children, teens, young adults and their families suffering a loved one’s death. If this article has helped your family, we are grateful for your donation of any size. Mary’s book Understanding Your Child’s Grieving Heart After a Loved One’s Death is available here.


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