Don’t Be Fooled:
Myths of Childhood Grief
When I work with children and teens I am in such awe at what being a child entails… Innocence, resilience, inventiveness, forgiveness, no filters and most of all fun. However, what some people fail to remember or understand is children are no less human than an adult. Children are not immune to life experiences INCLUDING grief. To a child experiencing such things as the divorce of their parents, the loss of a pet, moving to a new school, or losing a loved one the experience is no less heart-breaking. Here are some common misconceptions about childhood and grief.
- Children do not grieve.
This could not be further from the truth. Do not make the assumption my child cannot understand death or loss therefore they cannot understand grief. Children do not grieve in the same ways as adults. Just as each grief experience is unique for an adult the same is true for a child. Their grief experience is dependent on various things including age and stage of development.
- Children should not attend rituals surrounding death including a funeral or memorial service.
The decision as to whether or not a child should attend rituals surrounding the death of a loved one is a difficult one. On the one hand, there is a tendency to want to protect a child from life’s most painful moments. On the other hand, there is this beautiful logic of teaching and role modeling for a child how to process the grief journey. This decision has to be made by the child’s parents or guardians and should be based on the child’s developmental abilities.
- A grieving adult does not impact a child.
One thing adults oftentimes fail to recognize is how perceptive children really can be. I love the saying “Children are like sponges.” They literally soak up everything in their surroundings including appropriate and inappropriate ways to cope with grief.
- Adults should avoid discussions with children on grief and should do their best to hide it.
In this case “Silence is Golden” is not the best tactic. If an adult role models avoidant behaviors or the complete shutdown of emotions related to grief the child will follow suit. Keeping open, honest conversations regarding the grief experienced is important along with a wiliness to answer questions. By doing so, the child is able to practice important skills related to emotional expression which can create healthy coping strategies for future grief.
- Parents and other adults should have all the answers.
As a parent or other adult trying to explain grief and loss is never easy. You cannot put the expectation on yourself to have all the answers for every situation. It is simply not possible. It is okay to ask for help and support. Here’s a secret (even as professionals we do not have all the answers!!)
- A playful child is not a grieving child.
At the end of the day kids will be kids. Play is a part of being a kid even while going through grief. Children use play as a source of expression and this is especially true for children unable to verbalize their feelings. Also, do not make the mistake of thinking if children are playing they are not thinking or far from the grief experience. Again, this is not the case. Depending on the age of the child, don’t be surprised if one moment they are deep in play and the next moment asking a question related to the loss. For example, a five-year-old child may be putting together a house made of legos and turn around to ask “When will I see Auntie Jennifer again?”
- Children’s grief is short and orderly.
Grief in all individuals including children is a unique journey. There is no specific pattern or chapter a person will finish to move on to the next. Instead, it is a wide range of emotions with mountains and valleys. Children may seem to bounce back quickly from devastating news, but again this is just an appearance. Children need time, compassion, honesty, and openness from the adults in their environment. Unlike adults who may become stuck in one particular feeling of grief children will have “grief moments.” In other words, seeing a child laughing one moment and the next sobbing in tears is all part of the process. Also, pay close attention to behavioral changes in children. Again, these will differ with developmental age and may include such things as regressive behaviors (wetting the bed after being previously potty trained) or asking repeated questions about the loss.