Loss, Grief and Children
There can be many reasons for children to be experiencing grief and loss. These may include; the death of a parent, pet, friend or grandparent, family separation or divorce, change of their living environment and exposure to traumatic events. Children experience grief in their own unique way, while at the same time every child’s grief process will include: early grief, acute grief and subsiding grief. Each phase includes several components:
Sharing a child’s journey through the stages of grief can be very painful but children need to be encouraged to talk about their grief. Helping young people to make meaning of their loss is an important step for them to start building their world (Neimeyer, 2001). Children find it easier to cope with their feelings of loss when they are allowed to take part in the experience of grief and mourning (Despelder & Strickland, 1996).
In early grief it is common for the loss to be temporarily forgotten. Children may suppress their feelings in order to prevent, avoid, or reduce anxiety when feeling threatened. When there is a family loss or separation adults tend to rally around the adult involved, causing children to feel that their grief is not important.
The acute stage of grief has several components:
- Dealing with sadness
- Guilt and shame
- Despair and disorganisation
Each of these phases helps children recover from the loss, accept what has happened and move towards healing. Children need to know that their feelings and reactions are normal so that instead of trying to fight their feelings they can start to express them openly.
In the yearning stage children feel that what has happened was not supposed to happen and that a different ending could be possible.
Searching behaviour can occur soon after a separation as part of normal grieving. When children realise that the person is not coming back they may begin to dress like, act like or take over the roles and responsibilities of that person. This phase ends when children accept that they have tried everything to bring the person back but nothing has changed.
Dealing with Sadness
As part of the healing process, children who are feeling sad may turn to adults for comfort or they may withdraw into a quiet space by themselves.
Grieving children who are struggling with a loss can be over sensitive resulting in outbursts of anger. Children may only hold on to their anger for so long before it comes out in an explosion (Berry, 2001). They may dislike and try to avoid gatherings where other children are having fun. Research by Bowlby (cited in Jarratt, 1982) shows that about one fourth to one third of children who have experienced a significant loss become overactive and aggressive towards their peers and adults.
After a loss, overly anxious children can become very suspicious and hostile viewing life as being full of threatening surprises with painful consequences that are out of their control. These children are often very anxious about personal safety, but only when someone else is in control.
Guilt and Shame
Children may experience intense guilt if they believe that their own impatience or jealousy caused the loss. Children tend to go into self-blame when no one talks to them about what led to the loss, reassuring them that it was not their fault. The more directly children are told about the loss, the less chance there is of them becoming confused, to deny the truth or to blame themselves.
Despair and Disorganisation
Despair is one of the most difficult stages of the grief process. When children are in despair they may speak and move slower than they normally would, seem pessimistic causing them to have a lack of energy and motivation. They become disorganised which may cause them to become vague and unfocused. Grieving children often become disorganised at home and daily responsibilities such as washing or brushing teeth may be neglected. They feel helpless and life seems to be meaningless and overwhelming.
Once the despair has been worked through and the experience of separation or loss is eventually mastered they can reorganise themselves and get on with life. The reality of the loss no longer has a profound impact on their outlook or self-esteem. Life and people become enjoyable and there is more focus on the present and the future rather than the past. Children may change some or all of their friends and are usually drawn to those who have stood by, comforted and understood them. Some children are very wise and when they feel safe and loved, understood and supported they grieve and heal in there own way (Wismer, 2005).