Myths About Children and Grief
By Robin Fiorelli
Both mental health practitioners and parents alike have been misguided about how children experience the loss of someone significant to them and about the most effective ways to assist a grieving child. In a systematic review of the prevailing misperceptions, Charles A. Corr identified the most prevalent one as the belief that children do not really grieve because they are too young to understand death. The reality is that children's grief may look different than that of adults, but it shares fundamental similarities as a physical and emotional reaction to the loss of a significant loved one.
The most compelling myth is that it is best to protect a child from death-and also from grief. It is natural for adults to want to protect children from painful experiences. However fanciful this wish may be, children will grieve in their own unique ways. It is imperative that caring adults do not dictate or impede that process, but instead allow and even facilitate children's expressions of grief.
Another myth is that funerals and memorial services are not age appropriate and children may be traumatized by the acute emotional experience at such an event. As will be discussed below, current research suggests that a child should receive information about what the event will be like, and then should be allowed to make up his or her own mind about participating-a decision adults should honor.
Another common myth is that children are "naturally resilient" and should just "bounce back" after a loss. This is not always the case. A child's ability to "bounce back" depends on a number of factors, including concurrent stressful events, the child's understanding of the death, the child's developmental age and the support received by adults in the child's life. On the other hand, John Bolby, in his work on attachment and loss, concluded that children are more susceptible to profound emotional scarring after experiencing a significant loss. Supposing this potential exists, its realization still depends on the factors listed above, most importantly the attitudes and behaviors of adults important in the child's life.
Children tend to attribute physical symptoms to emotional experiences more than do adults. Many parents are familiar with the headache that appears when a child is overwhelmed with emotion or with the stomachache that appears the morning before a school test. There is much debate about whether children really experience emotions more as a physical sensation than do adults and whether they know that adults in their lives are more apt to heed physical rather than emotional symptoms.