How about, "Don't feel bad. You'll see her again"? That is the truth. However, that only points to how much he is missing her right now. All the things I could think of were my own efforts to make us both feel better. Saying them would have made me feel better, but I doubt they would have comforted this child grieving over the loss of his grandmother. We try to fix it, but we cannot. Death is too strong of an enemy. Is there anything we can do, then, as adults to assist children grieving?
As I sat beside him I said, "It's really hard." He looked at me and nodded as a tear coursed down his cheek. I put my arm around him as he experienced the release of tears.
Helping to Grieve
When children are grieving what they want the most is for others to understand. They want someone to listen when they are ready to talk and reflect their feelings back to them. This helps them know that someone is with them in their suffering, and that is comforting. In fact, that is the core of what humans can do to comfort others. Paul said, Christians should "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. " (Romans 12:15, NKJV) There is not any fixing in weeping and rejoicing. Once we understand the most important thing, what else helps children grieve the loss of a loved one?
Some time ago, I volunteered at the Children's Grief Center of New Mexico. We would put kids together who have suffered the same loss. I remember one teen boy, at the end of his time at the center, wrote in a survey we gave him, "Having fun with others my own age who have suffered the same loss helped me realize that life could go on." Only those who have suffered the same thing really know what it is like. That sense of knowing aids children to bond and learn from each other. If you have a child who has experienced losing a person they love, then grief groups help a lot. Playing in such groups is incredibly helpful because a child will resolve hurtful emotions through play.
Two other modalities we used at the center were arts and crafts. Since children rely more on emotions than on cognition, emotional processing is more helpful than talking. Drawing a picture of the deceased, visiting the cemetery with something they made to leave behind, or photographs put in an honored album are all things done to memorialize and hold on to the loved one. These types of activities are helpful in the grieving process. We do not simply "get over" the death of loved ones; we put it in perspective and move along, while holding on to it.
One final note: No one grieves over loss in the same way or at the same rate. While it is true that some people are stuck in grief, it is not wise to push children in their grief. Instead, we can do all the things we have talked about in this article to help kids cope and do some additional research.
Pre-Teens and Teens
How grief can be expressed:
- Physical symptoms include:
headaches, stomachaches, sleeping and
eating disorders, hypochondria
- Wide mood swings
- Hopelessness and helplessness
- Withdrawal from adults
- Problems focusing
Helping those to cope:
- Accept emotional instability
- Encourage them to recognize and identify painful feelings
- Steer them toward creative, physical activities as outlets for their emotions
- Respond with empathy
- Be truthful and direct in explaining the details of the loss.
- Allow them to make choices that are not harmful