Children & Grief - Finding Healing in a Time of Loss
By Rev. Dr. Kim Miller
Nobody likes it when bad things happen, especially when the word 'grief' enters our mind. However, bad things do happen, and sometimes our children are caught up in the experience. Understanding grief and understanding what children need can help us to help them through life's bad times.
My teenage novel 'They Told Me I Had To Write This' follows the life of a boy coming to terms with his mother's death and his part in it.
It's a long way into the story before he even starts to understand what grief is all about.
Grief is a complex swirl of emotions that encompass us in times of loss and change. We mostly associate the word with death but grief can engulf us in many places. Military families move base and lose contacts with friends.
Children change class and lose a beloved teacher. A family heirloom is broken. Loss and change are everywhere.
Many years ago Elizabeth Kubler-Ross formulated the stages of grief as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. People used to imagine that we travelled through these stages and came out to normal life. However, grief is not a simple experience that starts at one end and finishes at the other while we sit passively and it all happens to us.
More recently, William Worden came up with four tasks of grief.
- To accept the reality of the loss
- To process the pain of loss
- To adjust to a new environment without the lost person or object
- To find an enduring connection with what we have lost & take that into our new life
These tasks require an active engagement with life's bad experiences.
Now let's look at how children experience grief.
The first thing is to recognise that children are often powerless and this is magnified in times of loss and change. Their emotional turmoil is tied in with powerlessness and the inability to make things right again.
Now couple that with a limited vocabulary, especially in terms of explaining their emotional state.
Imagine that you are in their position. You can't control what is happening around you, you don't understand what's happening inside you, and you can't explain it to anyone else. This is a recipe for anxiety and fear.
Strategies for Dealing with Childrens' Grief
- Children suffering anxiety need to feel safe, that is priority number one. Recent discoveries of neuroscience show that prolonged anxiety has an effect on the physical growth of a young child's brain. Calming their anxiety is the priority. Assure your children that you are there, they are safe, home is still a safe place, people still love them, this bad feeling will not be forever, good things can still happen.
- Recognise the emotional turmoil that Kubler-Ross lays out - many children regress to an early stage of behaviour in times of stress. A wise parent assesses the behaviour age and relates to that. If your eight year old child is suddenly a five year old in behaviour, deal with him/her as if they are five. Don't tell him/her to 'act your age', rather, give your child a long slow calming hug as if he/she is five. The behaviour regression is a signal about anxiety and is not permanent.
- Read through Worden's tasks - you might need some imagination, but try to find things to do with your children that allow them to work through those tasks. Resources are out there. A good start is a downloadable book called 'Here for Each Other' from Sesame Street TV and the Victorian Dept of Education and Early Childhood Development. Another resource is the Seasons for Growth program from www.goodgrief.org.au. It might even be running in your child's school.
- If your children are experiencing a time of grief then it is likely that you are as well. What I've said here about children includes you. Treat yourself gently, don't have unrealistic expectations of your ability to cope, find one or two caring people who will look after you in the journey to the new normal. Life is to be enjoyed, and even in times of pain, enjoyment of life is still possible.
Rev. Dr. Kim Miller
P: 02 4962 4774