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Grief - How Children Grieve

Marsha Johnson

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Grief: How Children Grieve

Losses rarely have an impact on only one individual. Death, divorce and disease affect family, friends, children, co-workers, and sometimes even strangers. Grieving is a family affair and through difficult times, children need reassurance that they are a part of the process. Therefore, it is important for adults to be aware of how children grieve and the ways in which this grief is manifested.

While children seem to have incredible “bounce back” ability from life’s challenges, they are not exempt from grief. Children will grieve divorce, death, a parent’s job loss, moves and even relationships that come and go in the lives of the adults around them. Although I have witnessed first hand how my own children have rebounded from tragedy, it took a long while for me to understand that their silence did not mean they had recovered from loss and their solitude did not mean they were free from pain. Over the years I learned to become very concerned when my children were silent, rather than acting out, as we journeyed through difficult times.

The importance of being aware of my children’s grief became very clear one day when my sister, Wilma, shared a story with me that made a lasting impression on the both of us. Shortly after Emerald’s death, Wilma returned to work. A short while later her manger, Denny, called her aside to speak with her. He began to explain to Wilma that when he was 16 years old his brother passed away. Denny went on to tell Wilma that not too long after his brother died he lost his mother as well. He explained that his mother did not die of an illness. Rather, she died of a broken heart, leaving Denny to raise himself.

Wilma then looked at me and said, “Marsha, the best advice I ever received hurt the most. Denny looked at me and said, ‘Do you know where your son is right now? Do you know what he is doing? My advice, don’t join the dead men walking’. ”

It was then that I became aware of the fact that so many times, in my own grief I left my children to grieve alone. I used to think that when I was hurting, the most important part of grieving was for me to be relieved of my own pain. I assumed my children’s silence meant they were not suffering. Quite the opposite, my children had been suffering in the silence.

Fortunately, many of the mistakes I made through trying times have been redeemed and those experiences have provided a means by which the children and I have grown closer. One of the first things I learned was that children grieve differently than adults. Also, I became aware that children’s behavior is different depending upon their stage of development. Just as each child is unique so too is their response to loss.

In an effort to draw attention to the importance of grief in children I have put together a few of my own notes and have listed a website that provides a wealth of information in dealing with grieving children.

As children are working through their loss, like adults, they can become easily distracted and have difficulty following through on the simplest of tasks. They usually grieve in short spurts and when parents or other adults are not around. Their initial grief is very strong and it is likely they will cry or even become hysterical. It is important how we teach our children to grieve as they are learning lifelong coping skills that will help them accept future losses. It is not surprising that, when children work themselves through a particular loss, they gain self-confidence as they realize they have survived the worst thing that could happen.

Physical Signs of Grief:

Depending on the age physical symptoms can include:

  • Bedwetting.
  • Thumb sucking.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Stomach aches.
  • Nightmares.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Identity confusion.
  • Little or no motivation.
  • Hyperactive.

    Emotional Signs of Grief:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Depression.
  • Denial of loss.
  • No display of emotions over the loss.
  • Conflicting feelings about hanging on and letting go.
  • Avoids talking about the loss.
  • Experience a wide range of emotions including sadness, anger, guilt and shame.
  • May regress to an earlier stage of development.
  • Aggressive behavior.

    What Adults Can Do:

  • Provide guidance and reassurance.
  • Answer children’s questions honestly and simply.
  • Address children’s fears.
  • Listen to them when they are ready to talk about the loss.
  • Give lots of hugs.
  • Take time to hold them.
  • Encourage additional sleep.
  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible.
  • Give children permission to cry and grieve.
  • Consult outside sources for help if you believe a grieving child is not doing well.
  • Consider using the terms died or dead - children can become easily confused by other terms such as “passed away” or “fell asleep”.
  • Consider including children in the process of death and even divorce. Guiding them through the progression can ease their fears and lessen their feelings of abandonment. However, each loss is significantly unique and each set of circumstances should be considered in respect to the child’s well being.
  • Encourage children that the wide range of emotions they feel are normal.
  • Be prepared for a child’s grief to recur around a loved one’s birthday, holiday or other special occasion.

    For additional and more detailed information on the developmental stages of grief visit the website: http://childparenting. The website lists how preschoolers, elementary age, pre-teens and early adolescent children express their grief and the ways in which adults can assist them through the process.

    If there are additional concerns or questions concerning grief in children do not hesitate to seek outside help. There are many organizations, skilled professionals and health care providers that are trained to answer and deal with children in difficult times.

    Marsha Johnson is a writer, speaker and the author of Emerald’s Garden – How to grieve, mourn and recover from loss. See to sign up for your free Grief Recovery e-newsletter.

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