We believe one of our greatest responsibilities as a parent is to protect our children. It stands to reason then, that we would want to shield them from all things deemed painful, both physically and emotionally. When tears well in their pure, innocent eyes we feel a lump in our own throat and would do anything within our power to make the hurt go away. How many times have you thought “if I could trade places with my hurt, injured or sick child – I would do it in an instant.”
This is unconditional love;
This is being a parent.
Such altruistic intentions however can have a down side. If we never allow our children to experience failure, hurt, or loss, their ability to deal with these issues later in life will be greatly diminished.
Loss is an inevitable part of life and our responsibility as parents is not to shield but rather to share. To walk with our children through these experiences so they do not feel alone. It is important to help children understand that their experience is normal and the intense emotions a natural part of the grieving process. Supporting our children to make sense of their internal and external world can help develop healthy emotional maturity.
What do our children have to grieve?
When we think of grief we often think of it as the intense collection of emotions following the death of a loved one. Although this is something our children may have to face, there are many other more common issues that children face on a regular basis that can result in a grief reaction.
Just like adults children form attachments to people and things. When these attachments are lost or broken a child may feel the effects of grief. To an adult a child’s attachment to a favourite toy, blanket, or imaginary friend may seem unimportant and insignificant. But it is the significance your child places on this attachment that is of most importance. We as adults cannot assume to know what is more or less significant to our children.
A high percentage of children today face the divorce or separation of their parents. Children deal with moving house, moving school, and losing friends (real or imagined). Favourite toys get lost and broken, special comforters like dummies, blankets or teddies get taken away. Fantasies like the Tooth Fairy, Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny are shattered by older children in the playground. The list of losses a child can face is endless. The lack of respect the adult world can show for these losses is significant. Unfortunately children often encounter an adult response of minimalising or dismissing their loss. Adults often do this because the loss holds no significance for them in their adult world. When this happens we miss valuable opportunities to explore and share with our children. 1
As grown ups we need to remember that: “Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event.” 2
Keeping this in mind may help when trying to understand the reactions of our children to what we perceive as a minor issue and one easily remedied. We can often be frustrated with our child when they continue to wail, despite being offered a replacement toy, or comforter. We are confused by the fact that the death of a distant relative evokes no reaction, and yet leaving big Ted behind in the park can bring a flood of tears every time it is thought of. These unexpected reactions seem illogical to us. Children are not illogical they are simply limited by their life experience. To appreciate the losses our children experience we need to place them in the context of our child’s reality.
Big Ted perhaps was a constant companion. He helped your child feel safe and secure, was a part of your child’s world and perhaps the only possession for which your child could claim ownership. Big Ted may have helped your child sleep and feel safe in the dark. Perhaps he had been an important confidant and helped your child make sense of what was going on around them. The death of a distant relative is not central to your child’s universe, they do not understand the permanence of the death, and they are unable to consider the impact on others close to this person. Children do not integrate all the implications adults consider when faced with such news. Adults often face issues of their own mortality, reflect on their own lives and perhaps even consider the bigger ‘meaning of life’ questions. Children however are primarily concerned with the immediate impact on them. Are they safe, secure, and loved? When viewed like this it makes sense that the reaction to the loss of big Ted holds much more significance to your child than the death of a distant Aunt. The loss your child feels for Big Ted is real and significant and deserves your attention. To attend to our child’s grief we need to first look at the difficulties we as adults face when dealing with the grief of a child.
Difficulties adults face:
Along with wanting to protect our children from hurt, often we do not want to talk about grief and loss because of our own painful grief histories or limited grief knowledge. Many of us grew up in an era where children were seen but not heard. Children were to be protected from painful truths. The understanding was that children were too young to be affected by the intensity of grief. Our sick pets never died but were suddenly sent to live on farms. Our goldfish was swiftly replaced so we never knew Goldie had a limited life cycle. It is no wonder that knowledge about our own grief reactions can be limited. With a little self reflection we can use these opportunities our children present to us to not only to teach our children but also to examine ourselves and our reactions to losses both past and present.
Sometimes we try to avoid dealing with the intensity of issues like grief by believing our children need the expertise of trained counsellors. Children in most circumstances do not need trained grief counsellors or require parents to be grief and loss experts. In most cases the important thing is for children to feel safe, secure and loved. The best and most important people to help a child feel this security is their parents. If the world as they previously knew it has suddenly changed, they need to know it is not their fault. They need to know they are allowed to be sad, angry (or whatever feeling they can identify). They need to know that they are safe even if the adults around them are sad and have a little less time for them right now. Children need us to be understanding of the confusion they feel. But most importantly children need us to be honest. We do not need to have the right answers to difficult questions about the meaning of life, but we do need to be honest about what is going on in the child’s world. Avoiding honesty leaves children at the mercy of their limited life experience and fanciful imaginations. The reality of a death or significant loss is far less frightening than what a child can create it to be in their own minds.
Our fear of intense emotions may also prevent us from modeling good grief. “To facilitate accepting death as part of the life cycle, all that have a role in caring for children need to be comfortable with and accept that death is a part of the human experience.” 3 Our biggest difficulty may not be with educating our children about grief and loss but with equipping ourselves to do so. Becoming more self aware helps us to remain open to issues we find particularly painful to address.
Difficulties our children face:
Just like adults children respond to loss individually. “The amount of grief we experience is proportional to the significance we attach to what we have lost.” 1 There are some distinct differences between the ways in which children process loss compared with adults. Understanding these developmental differences may help us when we are baffled by our children’s behaviour.
Children of different ages understand grief in different ways; it is your child’s developmental stage rather than chronological age that is important to understand.
Young children (under six years) find difficulty with the concept of permanence. We all know that five minutes can mean forever to our child. Although this is a developmental process the world around us does not assist with gaining an accurate understanding of permanence. Video games can be re-set for ‘more lives’; cartoon characters reappear in the next episode after just being blown up and we live in a throw away and replace society. The irreversibility of death is a tricky concept for young ones. Using naturally occurring examples (non-crisis death education) can help develop the understanding of permanence and highlight distinctions between what is dead versus what is alive. Exploring the garden and examining animals that have died can be a wonderful opportunity to learn about death and life. Noticing the lack of breath and movement and continuing this process over a period of days can allow the child to see that the animal/plant remains dead and perhaps even begins to decay. Taking these opportunities in the absence of a crisis can help explore difficult concepts when emotions are not raw.
Children do not have the same capacity to explain their emotions in words.. This limited ability to verbalise often requires you to interpret behaviours and offer suggestions for what your child may be feeling. This allows an opportunity for children to learn how to put words with feelings. A child’s first experience with grief may be very confusing and frightening. Remember children cannot talk about what they do not know so often they will act their feelings out.
Access to information:
Young children are reliant on adults to give them accurate information. A time of grief especially when adults are grieving too, can make this difficult. Many well meaning relatives may try to soften the blow, gloss over or quieten a child’s curiosity by not giving accurate information. This can lead to complications down the track including a loss of trust in those close to them. Making a time and space for honest discussion with your child can ensure that they feel included in what is going on around them. This also limits the possibility of them filling in the gaps with snippets of conversations they overhear or imagine that they know. Making a special time can also give grieving adults reassurance that their children’s needs are also being met. . It is important that this time is sanctioned and honored so that the child is aware that they are being considered and prioritised.
Access to support:
Children do not know how to ask for help especially when they are confused. Some children withdraw, others cry out for attention in unexpected ways. When children are dealing with a major loss in their lives such as death of a parent or sibling often other children of their age have not had a similar experience. This lack of understanding from their peer group can further isolate children.
Children are the centre of their universe. If the dog dies, parents fight or grandma gets sick, in the world of a child it is all their fault. This can be exacerbated by lack of information and people not being sensitive to the real importance of children’s fears being addressed. It may not make sense to us that a child feels their tantrum a week ago has a direct link to the dog being hit by a car. To ignore this or pass it off as silly will not help alleviate the real sense of guilt the child may feel. Talk to them about why they feel this way, that you are not angry with them, and explain in as much detail as they want how the dog got hit by the car. Encourage them to ask questions and be prepared to repeat your explanations until the child feels satisfied and understanding this new reality.
Ways you can help:
Although we would like to, we cannot prevent loss in the lives of our children. Loss is an important part of growing toward maturity. What we can do is be a healthy role model for grief.
The importance of honesty in the face of grief is of utmost importance.. Children do not have the same reference points as adults. The truth about a loss may not be as difficult for a child to hear, as it is for an adult to say. To leave a child to make sense of what is going on around them alone at the mercy of their limited life experience is disastrous and unfair. 4
Use appropriate language
When we are nervous, upset or unsure, it is difficult to remember the importance of the language we use. However if we want our children to seek our council we need to speak their language. Get down to their eye level, speak calmly and gently and check that what they are hearing is in fact what you are saying. Children are very literal and they may not take the meaning that you intended, innocently suggesting that the deceased has “gone to a better place” can leave a child feeling that they have been abandoned for something better. We need to be very careful and resist using clichés. It is far better to sit in silence with your child’s sense of grief than to fill the space with words in an attempt to make everything better. Ensure all of the significant adults in the child’s life are giving consistent information. You may need to speak with teachers and other relatives to ensure the words and explanations you are using remain consistent to limit your child’s confusion.
Using metaphors of sleep or rest to explain the state of death is very unhelpful. Children are literal and will fear going to sleep if they think that is what caused the dogs death (being put to sleep). Equally children will be very hesitant to go for there next check up at the doctors, if you just tell them grandma got sick and that is why she died. Avoid generalising and instead use more specific references such as ‘cancer that could not get better even with the medicine or her heart stopped working and the doctors couldn’t fix it. We can often forget the generalised terms we use and the implications they have for children. Adults may refer to heaven as a place where the dead person has now gone. For a child heaven is just another geographical location that in their mind is very reasonable to go and visit. Our explanations need to consider the literal and inexperienced minds of our children.
We need to listen to our children and help them gain an understanding of what they are feeling and why. This is not about minimising but about normalising and letting them know that they are not alone and that such intense feelings are OK and normal. We can also provide a forum for our children to gain understanding of what is going on around them, especially if others close to them are grieving too. If left unexplained the grieving of others can be frightening and sometimes children can self blame for this. As children grow and develop their understanding of a previous loss may need to be revisited. As children gain greater understanding they may want to recheck previous explanations. When something important happens in their life at two or five, they need to process it differently by the time they are ten or 15, or even 20 years of age. As they grow, their ability to understand also grows. They need to look back at what happened in the light of this new maturity and reconsider everything from the new position. Children are naturally, wonderfully curious. When others are also grieving a child’s lack of appropriate timing for painful questions can appear to suggest a lack of sensitivity. Children’s questions are reflective of a genuine effort to develop an understanding of their changed reality. We need to respond respectfully and show acceptance of their curiosity. 1
“Hush little baby don’t you cry” is sung to our children with the best of intentions. Of course we don’t want them to cry; we don’t want them to hurt. If we had our way we would protect them from every toothache, heart break and disappointment that life may bring their way. When we first lay eyes on our precious babes we think of all the wonderful, hopeful amazing things that we want to fill their lives. For a full appreciation of happiness, love, success, strength and courage we need to know what it is to be sad, lost, failed, weak and discouraged. We have the opportunity to guide our children to emotional harmony with all its trials and triumphs.
1.Heaney Pam : Children’s Grief A guide for Parents: New Zealand: 2004
2. Gaston Bachelard 1884-1962 French Scientist, Philosopher. Literary Theorist
3. Schoepke.B: Supporting Bereaved Preschoolers and Elementary School Children : 2003
4. Murray.J : University of Queensland, St Lucia: 2000
Dougy Centre: 35 ways to help a Grieving child : 1999