There are differences and similarities in the ways parents and children grieve.
John Bowlby (1980) describes four phases of the grief process:
- a period of numbness, which lasts for hours or weeks, in which the person has taken in the fact of death but has not registered it emotionally because the pain is so great
- a period of protest and yearning, in which the person refuses to accept the fact of the death and searches for the parent or child
- a period of sadness and despair, in which the reality of the death has sunk in emotionally and life without that person seems unbearable
- a period of reorganization of life to go on without that person
These are a “succession of phases” rather than clear-cut stages. It is possible to move back and forth between two phases while moving in the direction of adapting to and accepting the fact of the person’s death (Bowlby, 1980).
Bowlby believed it is not necessary to detach completely from the memory of the person; it is possible to reorganize your life in a meaningful way and still have a continuing sense of the dead person’s presence in your life.
Therapists working with a child’s grief have four guiding principles:
- Grief is a natural and expectable response to loss.
- Each individual carries within him an innate capacity to heal.
- The duration and intensity of grief is unique for each individual.
- Caring and acceptance are helpful to a person in resolving grief. (Rosoff, p.108)
Talking to Children about Death
Give children accurate information in words they can understand.
Only after age 5-7 can children begin to understand that death is irreversible. As children get older and their thinking becomes more mature, they may have new questions and new reactions they want to discuss. The initial explanation of the death is the beginning of conversations that will extend over the years (Brooks, p. 507).
Be aware that children are prone to feel guilt and to blame themselves for the death of a loved one. Patiently help them work through this process.
Ways Children’s Reactions Differ from Adults
- children are more physical in their expressions of grief — they may want to ride a bike, shoot baskets, or run as a way to deal with grief
- children may have more physical complaints
- children are less verbal, and sometimes parents think they are not grieving because they are not talking about it
- children may use imaginative play or actions rather than words to express grief
- children express their anger about death more directly and may do more quarreling or arguing or may simply express anger at everyone and life in general
- children may be more attuned to parents’ needs and feelings than parents realize — as a result, they may behave in ways they think will please or help their parents
- children need breaks from grieving, which parents may not understand (parents may misinterpret this as not caring, however children do have the ability to live in the moment)
Helping Children Grieve
Parents need to create a supportive emotional climate to facilitate grieving:
- In age-appropriate terms, give accurate, detailed information about the death, and answer all questions. Be prepared to continue discussions in the future.
- Reassure children that the parent or parents will continue to nurture and care for them, and although the grief process may last an extended period of time, they will always be taken care of.
- “Keep your children with you, and include them in family and religious observances: viewings, funerals, burials, wakes, and the like. The question of at what age children should attend funerals comes up frequently. Talking with children, few complain that they were forced to attend a funeral against their will. More often, children complain that they had been sent away, excluded from this profoundly important event in their family’s life.” (Rosoff). If children are babies or toddlers, other relatives can hold them or supervise them. In the future, it will be valuable for them to know that they were there with the rest of the family even though they may not remember it.
- Talk to surviving children about what they want to do with their brother’s or sister’s or parent’s possessions. Adults make the final decision, but it is very important to get input from children.
- Express your grief in front of your children so they receive permission to grieve as well. Parents may worry that their grief will overwhelm children. Certainly in extreme form, crying and sobbing can overwhelm them, so it is wise to strike a balance between expressing your feelings so children, too, feel free to grieve, and expressing them so intensely that children are overwhelmed and afraid.
- Structure observances of the death so that all close family members are included and have a role — lighting a candle on anniversaries, making a donation in the name of the child, etc.
Brooks, Jane. B. (2008). The process of parenting, 7th edition. Boston, MA. McGraw-Hill.