Children grieve and mourn as deeply as adults.
However, they will experience and express their grief differently from the grown-ups around them, depending on their cognitive and emotional development. Their response will depend on the knowledge and skills available to them at the time of the death.
Children who are grieving need their parents or caregivers to be honest with them. They need accurate, factual information, and they need the freedom to ask questions.
It is OK to say that “Grandpa has died.” Using terms such as “gone”, “lost” or “sleeping” can cause more confusion and anxiety. Ask your child what they’ve heard and reword what is needed to be accurate and clear.
Children need to express their feelings and should be included, in an appropriate way, in decisions and discussions and family rituals of remembrance. They will need stable, consistent attention from caregivers and time to explore and come to terms with the meaning of their loss.
People experience and express their grief in unique ways. Failure to understand and accept them can result in hurt feelings and conflict among family members.
It may also cause people to bury their true emotions. Failing to allow a child to express grief can lead to complicated and unhealthy physical and emotional manifestations down the road.
The following are some factors that affect a child’s grief experience:
• The child’s relationship to the deceased,
• Was the death anticipated or sudden? Was there an opportunity to discuss the situation with the child before the death occurred?
• Does the child have previous experience with death, such as the death of a pet or observing others deal with death?
• Are there adults around who are modeling healthy grieving and coping skills,
• Is there opportunity for the child to participate in meaningful rituals allowing them to create memories, express their feelings and the have the opportunity to process the grief.
Like adults, children must have their feelings validated and must find healthy ways to express their grief.
Art, music, writing, looking at pictures, creating a memory book are some options. Do not be afraid to talk with your child about the deceased. Mention the deceased by name in conversations and share your favourite memories.
Tears and laughter are also healthy expressions of grief. Listen to your child and their stories and memories.
There are some good books available on the topic of grief and children. Other resources include the child’s school counselor, the funeral home, your place of worship or a counseling agency that offers family, grief or play therapy.
Grief needs attention and cannot be pushed aside or rushed through. As painful as it may be, it must be experienced.
By seeking help and resources and providing honesty and a comforting environment to children, they can experience grief in a healthy way.
Positive Parenting appears every week in LIFE. This week’s column was written by Laurie Whitaker, manager of the Home Support Program with Family Services of Central Alberta. Whitaker can be reached by calling 403-343-6400 or www.fsca.ca.