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One of the more challenging questions posed to therapists, specifically in the realm of bereavement specialists, is the question of children and grief.  The issues revolve around whether children have an understanding of death and loss.  Much of the material goes on to discuss age appropriate ways to be with children during their grief.  The conclusion most draw is that children, even if they don’t understand death as permanent, express sadness and grief over losses.  Further, children can be affected negatively by loss, even at a young age.  Most parents can see this through trying to change routine in a toddler.  Most toddlers have difficulty with change.  And if we consider that death is obviously a major change, then perhaps we can come to realize how such a change would affect a child.  Below is a discussion about children and grief, dispelling myths about children and grief.

Yes, Children Can Understand Grief

Posted on June 2, 2012

It had been an emotional evening as children, teens, and adult family members gathered in early December to prepare for the difficult holiday season ahead.  All of the GriefWorks children and their families had lost a significant loved one.  Some of the children had lost a parent.  Others had lost a sibling or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle.  Although all of the losses in the children’s grief support group were unique, all of the mourning families had one thing in common.  They were all missing their loved one at a time of the year when the importance of family being together is stressed and so valued.

The most touching element of the annual GriefWorks Commemoration is a candle lighting ceremony in which children and family members can honor and remember what their missing loved one has given them.  One by one the GriefWorks families came forward as their loved one’s name was called.  Each child lit a candle and had an opportunity to share some important, valued memory about their loved one.

Once the families had all lit a candle, we gave staff members and volunteers who had lost a loved one during the past year an opportunity to participate also.  One by one the staff and GriefWorks volunteers lit candles and shared their losses with the group.  Just two months prior to the commemoration ceremony my 76 year-old mother had died of lung cancer.  I struggled with the pros and cons of lighting a candle in tribute to her.  Somehow at that time it seemed too soon for me to be able to share my very personal grief publicly.  I wasn’t sure if I could light the candle without having a major grief outburst in front of a group of impressionable, vulnerable children.   (Yes, I know that grief outbursts are healthy but I, just like you, struggle at times with when and where it is appropriate for me to mourn publicly.)

But when the opportunity came, I lit the candle in honor of my mother.  I shared with the group my mother’s name, the details of her death and how much I would miss her.  My tears welled up as I spoke, but the devastating grief outburst that I had feared did not happen.

After I closed the commemoration service with a prayer, one of our five year olds came up to me.  She held out her arms and asked if I would give her a hug.  The mother of this five year old had been brutally murdered.  I never turn down a hug from a mourning five year old.  As I leaned down to hug her, she whispered in my ear, “I know you miss your Mommy too.”

I continue to be amazed that a five year old child can reach out from the depths of her sorrow over the loss of her young mother to comfort me, a man old enough to be her grandfather.  We adults sometime wonder in our efforts to reach out to mourning children if they get our intended messages about grief.  Believe me, children and teens in grief get it.

Let’s dispel some long held myths about children and grief:

Myth 1:  Grief and Mourning in children are the same experience.

Grief is a natural part of the life cycle; it is the overflowing love we still experience for a person no longer physically present.  Grief is what happens inside of us because of the loss.  Mourning is the behavior we use to express our grief:  tears, funerals, memorials, visiting gravesites and creating a “shrine,” for example.  Mourning is as unique as the individual who expresses sadness for a loss.  Unexpressed grief may result in depression, bitterness, dependence on drugs and/or alcohol, and isolation.  Healthy mourning aids in healing so that a person can be reconciled to loss and return fully to life.  Healthy mourning also honors a valuable person and their life.

Myth 2:  A child may not grieve for long.

 In truth, because a child is still developing, he or she will revisit the loss at each developmental stage.  A ten year old child whose mother dies will grieve again at graduation, his/her wedding, or other important milestones in life.  A child will be able to go from concrete to abstract thinking and adjust his/her understanding of death at each level.

A child may look like he/she is playing following a death in the family, when that play may be the way the child is processing what has occurred.  Don’t assume that a child is not comprehending what is going on around him because that short changes the child.  A child can only express himself through play when his vocabulary is limited.  Because an adult may look at a child and mistake play for a lack of grief, the adult may be tempted to leave a child out of the mourning rituals, such as a funeral, to “protect” the child.  Children like and need to be included in these rituals.

Myth 3:  There is a predictable and orderly stage-like progression to the experiences of grief and mourning.

Grief is not predictable, and it is not the same for each mourner.  The occurrences of grief outbursts describes the waves of sadness, anger or nostalgia that come upon a person uexpectedly.  Although there are commonalities between the grief experienced by different individuals, each grief is as unique as the one-of-a-kind, unique-in-all-the universe relationship we had with our specific loved one.  Children can understand this uniqueness in their grief, but at the same time they gain security when they realize that other people, including children their age, experience grief emotions also.

Myth 4:  Infants and toddlers are too young to grieve and mourn.

 Children old enough to love are old enough to mourn.  An infant will miss a familiar voice.  Attachment issues are extremely important in a child’s life, so much attention should be paid to a child who has had early death loss.  I have talked with many angry, mourning children whose parents protected them from the traumas of grief by not allowing them to go to the funeral of a loved one.  These children felt cheated of the opportunity to say a final, formal goodbye to their loved one.  Let children choose if they want to attend a funeral or memorial, and prepare them for what happens at these rituals.

Myth 5:  The grief and mourning of adults surrounding bereaved children doesn’t have any impact on them.

 A child will take his cues from the adults around him.  When children see their adult role models, their sources of security, not dealing well with a loss they can react with the same behavior as the struggling adult.  But remember, you don’t have to stay strong for the children.  You must provide them with the role model of how a healthy adult copes with loss.

Myth 6:  The trauma of childhood bereavement always leads to a maladjusted adult life.

 There are no studies to indicate that children who have suffered early childhood death loss are doomed to a life of addiction, depression or other mental illness.  Children with early loss are at risk for significant problems, but if they are nurtured physically, emotionally and spiritually through their loss by caring, present adults, children can learn healthy coping skills to help them not internalize their grief feelings.

Myth 7:  Children are better off if they don’t attend funerals.

Even the funeral industry realizes that children are better served by being included in mourning rituals.  Caskets with a drawer and special paper provided for pictures and letters that can remain with the body are now part of the displays in funeral homes.  Moving toward the pain can begin by the child being included in the mourning rituals around the time of the death.

Myth 8:  Children who cry are being “weak” and harming themselves in the long run.

Crying can mean many things (sad, angry, glad, relieved, etc), but it is not harmful.  Children cry at all ages, but they feel differently about crying at different ages.  Crying and the attitude about it is as unique as the grieving person.  Some younger children are not comforted by the tears of adults and may think they have done something to make their mother or father cry.  A child this young should be told concretely, “ I am crying because I am sad that Grandpa is very sick (has died, etc.).  I’m not crying because of anything you did.”  Adolescents may see crying as a loss of control and work to maintain a jovial, “business as usual”, or angry mood.  Helping them to deal with their feelings can help prevent later emotional problems for the child.  Children should always feel safe to talk about their grief or to express their grief emotions.

Myth 9:  Adults should be able to instantly teach children about religion and death.

 Some people figure religious people have ready answers to life’s difficult issues, when answers may not be anywhere to be found.  The spiritual task of grieving has to do with staying in relationship with God and having a sense of belonging.  No blame or explanation is necessary, but love and compassion are key.

 Myth 10:  The goal in helping bereaved children is to “get them over” grief and mourning.

We do not get over our losses.  We heal.  We love and are forever changed by our love, loss and grief.  Our goal is to companion children through their grief journeys so that they heal and live to love again and well.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT director of GriefWorks http://grief-works.org , a free children’s grief support program in Dallas TX and author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” (C) 2011.  Available on http://grief-works.org/book.php. Also available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookstore. Available now for Nook and Kindle.