Helping Children Handle Their Grief

Sad little girl leaning on a fence

“Two of the best-kept secrets of the twentieth century are that everyone suffers and that suffering can be used for growth.”  Lawrence LeShan.

We’re a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and I suspect that many of you have suffered losses…hopefully, not of people but of many other things… the ability to gather with family and friends, loss of your familiar ways of teaching…and so many more.  You’ve likely found yourself thinking about these losses and feeling sad—grieving over their loss and trying to move on—to put those thoughts behind you in some way and just exist with ‘what is.’

But what about the children we are seeing.  It’s a widespread myth that young children don’t grieve; that they adapt easily to change, accept it, and move on.  Unfortunately (or, fortunately, if we accept grieving as a natural, growth-producing process) children, even very young infants, grieve when faced with even small losses.  This grieving process is what creates anxiety when a young child is separated from a parent even for a short time and it’s also what can create big behavior concerns for the preschooler who has suffered a loss.

Young children today may face multiple losses before they even reach preschool age.  Losses might fall into distinct categories

  • Relationship: Death of a parent, grandparent, sibling, friend, classmate, pet; absence of teacher, parent, sibling, friend; unavailability of a parent due to alcoholism, drugs, imprisonment, divorce.
  • External objects:  Loss of favorite toy or object (blanket, pacifier, teddy bear); loss through robbery or being misplaced.
  • Loss in the environment: Fire, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters; moving, changing school, changing family structure; family separation.
  • Loss of self: Loss of physical part of the body such as a tooth, arm, eye; loss of self-esteem from physical, sexual, emotional, or deprivational abuse.
  • Loss related to skills and abilities: Held back in school; not chosen for team sports; overweight, injured, illness, physical disability; dyslexia, ADHD, or other developmental differences.
  • Loss related to habits: Sucking thumb, biting fingernails, twirling hair; change in eating patterns or daily routines such as bedtimes; beginning school or ending school.

The grieving child may manifest a variety of behaviors.  Although withdrawal is common, more aggressive behaviors are also normal. The grieving child will often seek some control over his life through defiance or aggression. She may also exhibit physical symptoms such as appetite changes, headaches, or weakness (especially in the legs.). He may become suddenly fearful, anxious, angry, or restless.

Whatever the source of the loss, children are likely to express their grief in physical ways. Young children are their feelings. What they do with their bodies speaks to their feelings. We can watch their bodies, their play choices, and their choice of language in their play for significant clues to their source of loss, their understanding of the loss, and their progression through the process of grieving.

Young children are very concrete in their thinking and they generalize from specific details to general suppositions. The death of a loved one in a hospital may lead to the erroneous belief that everyone who enters a hospital will die. Answering their questions simply and honestly and providing experiences that lead to different generalizations will help them to understand and to construct accurate knowledge about the source of the loss. Reflecting their feelings (“You’re feeling angry that your friend left and you want to hurt someone”) and redirecting their behavior with some choices (“Hurting people isn’t a good choice. We could hit the pillow or we could go outdoors and scream. I’ll scream with you.”) help the child label her feelings and recognize productive strategies for dealing with them.

They think of death as being temporary and reversible and may believe that their own actions could cause death or loss–this may lead to guilt feelings. May believe that death is like sleep and this may lead to fear of sleep and darkness.

Wants to understand about death and loss in a concrete way, but think, “won’t happen to them.” Denial, anger, sorrow. General distress, disoriented, confused. May behave as though nothing has happened. Desire to conform with peers. May ask questions repeatedly. May need physical activity on a regular basis.

Need for a consistent nurturing figure. Although the child may not fully understand the language of loss, use of words to identify possible feelings will be helpful.

Use of simple, honest words and phrases. Provide reassurance and a secure loving environment. Use drawing, reading books, and play together. Reflect and label feelings and redirect inappropriate behaviors.

Use of simple, honest words and phrases. Answer questions simply and honestly. Look for confused thinking.   Provide reassurance about the future. Provide outlets for feelings through physical activities, art, drama, and reading.

How we can help

  • Realize that the process of grieving is ongoing and cyclical–that is, it resurfaces for each of us and at different developmental stages in our lives and is processed and understood in a more sophisticated and mature way. There are no easy answers.
  • Follow the child’s lead.  Allow a new loss to be the first priority with the child and her classmates.
  • Initiate discussions of loss issues if the child does not.
  • Recognize that laughter and play does not mean that a child is not grieving..
  • Understand that separation is the underlying pain of a grieving child.
  • Acknowledge that children often believe that they have magical powers and need to create a reason for what has happened.
  • Commemorate the loss by encouraging families to include children in loss rituals (the purpose of funerals) or by making memory books, sending letters to the lost person, creating a bulletin board display.
  • Provide many opportunities for acting out the loss.
  • Provide activities that prepare the children for the change (if a loss can be anticipated, such as moving to the next class)
  • Help the family seek counseling if grieving behaviors continue to inhibit the child’s learning process beyond a reasonable time.

In the past, the human approach to loss and grieving has been to “stuff it”, try to ignore it, “be strong and go on.” We now know that grieving is natural and that disallowing the processes and manifestations of grief is unhealthy both emotionally and physically.  “Children will be more open to learning and relating if they are given avenues to express their bottled-up feelings.  Their academic, social, and spiritual growth will soar with the release of stored up hurts.” (Linda Goldman.

Some other resources about children’s grieving…most focus on death but have good information re helping children cope with the losses in their lives.

This article was contributed by Mary Perkins for the Early Childhood Express newsletter.