Guidelines for Helping Grieving Children
By Robin Fiorelli
One hundred years ago, death was much more a natural part of a child's experience. Grandparents often lived with families, so children witnessed them growing older and dying. Modern medicine has made strides in reducing infant and child mortality and has prolonged life expectancy for the elderly, so children witness fewer deaths. More and more elderly die in nursing homes and hospitals, outside the home environment. The exclusion of death from children's lives requires us to teach them explicitly about death and grief.
In Mourning and Melancholia, Sigmund Freud outlined his belief that young children did not have the capacity to mourn. He believed that only as a child developed into an adolescent did the child acquire the ego capacity to grieve. More contemporary research has concluded that children do in fact have the capacity to experience and express grief—but it is often more intermittent and drawn out over a longer period than with adult grief.
The grieving process helps people heal from their pain. Pain is a natural reaction when we lose someone close, and children are capable of accepting painful reality directly and openly. Often when adults try to protect children from the pain of loss, they actually are trying to protect themselves. The most important thing to remember in helping children cope with the death of a loved one is to allow them to express their grief in their own way and in their own time. It is important not to pressure children to resume their normal activities if they are not ready.
Children tend to have “grief bursts,” which then are followed by play and normal activities. Children may not be able to verbalize succinctly what they are feeling; instead they may demonstrate their feelings through their behavior and play. They may laugh or play at a time that appears inappropriate to an adult.
Children need to feel that it is OK to talk about death and grief. If a child does not want to talk about his or her grief, adults need to respect that desire. Adults should let the grieving child know that they are available to listen and help, and that any feelings the child has—anger, sadness, fear or regret—are normal. Hugging and touching help the grieving child feel secure in expressing emotions and also reassures the child that he or she is loved and will be cared for. Alan Wolfelt believes that if grieving children are ignored, they may suffer more from the sense of isolation than from the loss itself.
Messages relayed to a grieving child such as “Don't cry,”“You need to be strong,” “You're the man in the family now,” or “Be a good girl, your mommy needs your help now more than ever” suppress grief expression in the child and set up unfair expectations. Adults should intervene gently if they observe a child taking on the roles and tasks of the bereaved. Grieving children should not be allowed to take on the role of the “confidante” or partner of one parent if the other parent has died.
It is important that adults not hide their own feelings of grief from a bereaved child. If they do, they teach the child that feelings are not OK—that they are something to be ashamed of and to be kept to oneself. It also is true that grieving adults should not grieve profusely and at length in front of a child since it might frighten and worry the child.
Religion is an important source of strength for many adults and children during the grief process. Children take things literally, so explanations such as “It is God's will,” or “Bonnie is happy in heaven” could be frightening or confusing, rather than comforting particularly if religion has not played an important role in the child's life. It's important to inquire how the child perceives what is explained about the death. It also is important that children be allowed to express their religious and spiritual concerns.
Parents may be tempted to “send children away” when there is a loss—either to protect them from painful feelings or because it is difficult to care for the children while grieving themselves. During the grieving period, children often are most comforted by familiar surroundings and routines; separation may increase their fears about abandonment and change.
Special Consideration—Death of a Parent or Significant Adult
Parents naturally love their children, and children naturally depend upon parents for survival and stability. Phyllis Silverman believes that the losses children experience—how they talk about their deceased parent or significant adult and how they understand his or her place in their lives—can be even more critical than age-specific understanding of death. The death of a parent or significant adult seems to be more difficult if the death was sudden or if the child lacks a solid replacement figure.
Some children fantasize that their parent will return; others have the wish to die so they can be reunited with their deceased parent. This usually is a fleeting desire rather than true suicidal ideation. The child should be questioned more deeply, however, and an investigation made as to whether the child has a specific plan and means available to carry out a suicidal wish.
Silverman describes the accommodation and adaptation to the loss of a parent or significant adult that a bereaved child experiences throughout his or her life. These children tend to revisit the meaning of their parent's death over and over at different developmental stages. They also re-experience the loss at events such as graduation, marriage and the birth of a child.
Some bereaved children idealize their parent or significant adult as a way to keep their pleasant, comforting memories of him or her alive. This can be adaptive unless it gets in the way of the child expressing angry feelings toward the parent for leaving the child or for any “unfinished business” in the relationship. It is important that the surviving parent allow the idealization of the deceased parent but it also is important to stress to the child how much he or she is loved by the parent.