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Helping a Grieving Child



Grief is a universal human experience, and its impact on mental health is well-documented. While adults are often the focus of discussions on grief, it's essential to recognize that children also grapple with the complex emotions associated with loss. Children may face the death of a loved one, separation from a caregiver, a divorce, or even the loss of a pet. Here, we will try to explore how grief presents in children, with the use of examples and discuss interventions that can guide them through their healing journey.


The Manifestation of Childhood Grief:


Children express grief differently from adults, primarily due to their limited understanding of death and their developing emotional capacities. Here are some common ways grief may manifest in children:


Behavioral Changes: Children may exhibit changes in their behavior, such as becoming withdrawn, clingy, or exhibiting regressive behaviors like bedwetting. They may also experience sleep disturbances, nightmares, changes in appetite, or difficulty concentrating.


Example: A normally outgoing child may become more reserved and withdrawn, while avoiding social activities they once enjoyed after losing a family member.


Emotional Expression: Children may struggle to express their emotions verbally, leading to mood swings, heightened irritability, or intense emotional outbursts. Some children may even appear unaffected immediately after the loss, only to exhibit grief symptoms later.


Example: A child may burst into tears unexpectedly or become easily frustrated and angry without apparent cause. Sometimes, this can also occur as a response to being told ‘no’ which can fall under the facade of tantrums.


Physical Complaints: Grief can manifest in physical symptoms as well. Children may complain of headaches, stomachaches, or general fatigue. It's important to rule out any underlying medical conditions before attributing these symptoms to grief. This generally occurs because of a possible compromised immunity from all the emotions.


Example: A child may frequently complain of stomach aches before or after visiting the grave of a deceased parent. This often occurs as a result of being unable to express emotions, to a point where they can manifest as physical complaints.


Some Do's To Keep in Mind for a Grieving Child:


Be Honest and Open: Share the truth about the loss with your child from the beginning. This honesty helps them understand your emotions and provides an explanation for your tears and pain. It also helps them learn how to process their own grief.

Expect a Range of Emotions: Understand that your child may respond with upset and even anger. Accept their emotional reactions and give them time to process the initial shock and trauma. Be prepared to address their questions and concerns once they have had time to process the loss.

Use Realistic Language: It is important to use clear and direct language when discussing death. Avoid using euphemisms like "passed away" or "gone to sleep." Research shows that using realistic words such as "dead" or "died" helps children better comprehend and cope with the concept of death.

Share Information in Small Doses: Gauge your child's capacity to handle information and provide it in small, manageable doses. Allow their questions to guide the conversation and provide additional information as needed.

Be Comfortable with Not Knowing: Acknowledge that you may not have all the answers to their questions. It is okay to say, "I don't know" when faced with unanswerable inquiries. Honesty about uncertainty can help foster trust and open communication.

Embrace Tears and Emotional Expression: It is healthy and healing to cry together with your child. By modeling emotional expression, you show them that it is natural to grieve and that their feelings are valid.

Include Your Child in Rituals: Allow your child to participate in rituals surrounding the loss. This involvement can give them a sense of control and provide comfort during a traumatic time. Let them choose clothing, photos, songs, or readings that resonate with them.

Respect Their Unique Grieving Process: Understand that each child grieves differently. Some may choose to be silent, while others may feel lonely or isolate themselves. It is also common for children to appear unaffected by the loss. Support their individual ways of grieving without judgment.

Maintain Ongoing Conversations: Understand that mourning is a process that may require ongoing discussions. Check in with your child regularly, making yourself available for further conversations as they continue to process their thoughts and feelings.


Some Non- Conventional Ways of Dealing with Grief:

Be Transparent with Your Grief: It's important not to hide your grief from your child. Letting them see you cry and express sadness after a significant loss helps them understand that such emotions are normal and healthy. It also accounts for better emotional regulation.

Share Memories Freely: Don't shy away from sharing memories of your loved one. Some parents may fear that talking about the deceased person will cause more pain, but research shows that sharing stories and reliving memories actually aids in the healing and closure process.

Stay Connected, Even When Words Fail: Don't avoid connecting with your child just because you feel helpless or uncomfortable. Sometimes, a simple knowing look or a comforting touch can offer great solace and connection.

Maintain Openness about Death: Instead of changing the subject or avoiding discussions about death when your child is present, adjust your wording and level of information to make it age-appropriate. This avoids placing a taboo or stigma on the topic of death. For example, use words like dying and death and other direct terms so as to not sugarcoat anything. Also, avoid using statements like "They are watching over you from the sky" as a way of avoiding conversations or that they will come back soon in the hope that they will forget!

Preserve Daily Routines: Children thrive on consistency, so try to maintain your usual daily routines both at home and at work. Encourage your child to continue participating in their regular activities like school and social events, as it provides them with stability during a challenging time.

Embrace Laughter Amidst Grief: Remember that laughter can be a powerful healing tool. It's perfectly acceptable to find moments of joy and share laughter when reminiscing about memories or moments with your loved one. It signifies the importance of their presence in your life. For a lot of children, humor can be a way of coping and healing.

Avoid Imposing Time Limits on Bereavement: Everyone grieves in their own unique way, and it's crucial not to put a time limit on your child's bereavement or your own. Recognize that adjusting to a "new normal" takes time, and allow yourself and your child the space to heal. If needed, seek support from your child's school, physician, religious community, or consider consulting with a mental health therapist specialized in bereavement.


Interventions for Childhood Grief:

Supporting children through the grieving process requires empathy, patience, and age-appropriate interventions. Here are some strategies to help children navigate their grief:


Open and Honest Communication: Encourage children to express their feelings, thoughts, and questions openly. Provide age-appropriate information about death or loss, using simple and clear language that they can understand.


Example: When discussing the death of a pet, explain that the pet's body stopped working, and they won't be able to play with them anymore. Reassure the child that it's okay to feel sad and that it's normal to miss their pet.


Establish Rituals and Remembrance: Rituals and remembrance activities can provide comfort and help children honor and remember their loved ones. This may include creating memory boxes, planting trees or flowers, or writing letters or drawing pictures as a way to express emotions.


Example: Encourage a child to draw a picture of their deceased grandparent and talk about their favorite memories. Hang the picture in their room as a reminder of their special bond.


Emotional Support Network: Help children identify trusted individuals with whom they can share their feelings, such as family members, friends, or school counselors. Ensure that these individuals are aware of the child's grief and provide a safe space for them to express themselves.


Example: Organize a playdate or outing with a close friend who can provide companionship and understanding during the grieving process.


Maintain Routines and Structure: Consistency and predictability can offer a sense of stability during times of upheaval. Maintain regular routines for meals, bedtime, and activities to help children feel secure.


Example: Stick to familiar daily rituals like reading bedtime stories or having family meals together to provide a sense of stability.


Seek Professional Help if Needed: If a child's grief symptoms persist, significantly impact their daily functioning, or become overwhelming, it may be necessary to seek professional help. Mental health professionals specializing in child bereavement can offer guidance and support tailored to the child's needs. To book your appointment with us, click here.


Conclusion:


Childhood grief is a profound experience that requires our attention and support. By recognizing the unique ways in which children express grief and implementing appropriate interventions, we can nurture their emotional resilience and help them navigate the challenging journey of healing. It is a deeply personal journey, and each person, including children, copes with loss in their own way. By being open, supportive, and allowing space for emotions and memories, you can create an environment where healing and growth can occur at their own pace.


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