Most parents hope that they will never have to see their young children exposed to the pain of loss. But we live in a world where life is finite, and many families with young children are faced with the difficulty of coping with the death of someone close. Parents and other caregivers often struggle with how to address and support a child's grieving process, which is especially difficult and complex when the parents are having their own painful experience of grief at the same time.
Anyone who has lost someone close has learned that grieving is a process that takes time, and necessitates difficult tasks. We have to accept the reality of our loss, experience the pain and other emotional aspects of the loss, adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing and, eventually, find a new way to relate to the deceased person. Children need to work through these stages just as adults do, but a child's experience of these tasks will be different depending on their cognitive and emotional development. Death is a taboo subject in our culture, and talking to children about death can be extremely frightening for parents. But when a death has occurred or is imminent, it's vital to speak openly with children, allow them to ask questions, and give developmentally appropriate answers.
How do parents identify developmentally appropriate answers Well, some of it is about knowing your child. But it also helps to understand what happens in typical emotional and cognitive development. For instance, most children under five years old haven t grasped the concepts of permanence and irreversibility– that means that you may need to repeat Grandma has died, and she won't ever come back many times, over a period of months, before your child can understand what that means. Many children under five years old are also prone what is called magical thinking, ascribing meaning and/or causality based on fantasy. This could take the form of a thought like, I told my teddy bear that I hate my mommy, and that made my mommy die, or something bad happened to Grandpa because I wouldn't give him a hug.
Children who are 5 to 7 years old are most vulnerable to the negative effects of grief, because they are mature enough to understand the concept of death, but they haven t yet developed the ego or social skills to cope easily with the resulting emotional experience of grief. The most common emotions experienced by grieving children include sadness, anxiety, guilt, and anger– and these emotions may emerge immediately after a death, or not until 1-2 years later. Children may worry about their personal safety or the safety of other family members, they may worry about abandonment, and they may experience teasing from peers.
So what can help a child to get through a grief experience most effectively The answer is support, nurturance, and continuity. Especially after the death of a parent, bereaved children rely strongly on their surviving parent, and are greatly affected by the functioning of that parent. Participation in grieving rituals– such as attendance at funerals, and even help with planning– is extremely helpful in leading children to understand and adjust to a death. Children also adjust better after a death in the family if they have had to cope with fewer daily life changes, so trying to maintain routines can be of vital assistance.
The most important thing that a parent can do for a child who is grieving is to really tune in to what the child is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. A child who has experienced a loss needs extra security and validation, which comes from feeling understood and heard during the grieving process, especially by the child's parent. This can be challenging when the parent is also experiencing his or her own grieving process, and other family members as well as grief counselors can help. That most important piece, though, is the parent-child love and attachment, and its ability to prevail and sustain even in the midst of grief and tragedy.
In my years of working with children who have experienced loss, I've watched kids and parents alike struggle with the complex and intense emotional processes of grief. It's truly a process that can only be moved through, and not avoided, walked around, or hurdled over. But in healing grief, and in walking that difficult road together, kids and parents can form even stronger ties to each other, and approach life with true appreciation for what can be felt, shared, and experienced.
In a future post, I will write more about how children can adjust to grief over time, how families can help their children to develop and nurture an ongoing relationship with someone who has deceased, and how grief counseling and music and play therapy can help children who are coping with complicated grief.
Meghan is a licensed creative arts therapist and a board-certified music therapist with over ten years of experience working with babies, children, adolescents and adults. At her private practice in Brooklyn, she incorporates Depth Psychology, Vocal Psychotherapy and In-Depth Music Therapy to work with children and adults struggling with loss in their lives and with those who are looking for a creative way to understand themselves. Her style of therapy is client-led, and focuses on self-expression through music and/or the creative process. She can be reached at: email@example.com or by phone at 646-450-1644. www.brooklynlearning.com