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How the Grief Process Impacts Children

grief process

As an extraordinarily common emotion, grief is an experience that treats everyone a little different; however, similarities usually exist between most people who experience grief. The emotion is very often associated with the loss of a loved one, but it may also occur in lesser forms after any loss, like the loss of a pet. Additionally, children, teens, and adults may each approach the grief process differently.

Common Feelings During Grief

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which operates out of London, England, the process of grief is not a single feeling so much as it is a series of feelings that occur over time as the process continues. Sometimes, mental health professionals define “stages” of grief. According to PsychCentral, the “5 Stages of Loss and Grief” include:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Also, according to WebMD, grief is expressed in four different ways including physical, emotional, social, and spiritual expressions. However, the grieving process isn’t always predictable and isn’t a set schedule of emotions that everyone experiences.

Further, preexisting conditions like anxiety and depression may increase the severity of the grieving process. In addition, children may experience an entirely different sort of grieving process than adults.

Bereavement in Infants and Toddlers

A common assumption among adults is that loss, grief, and bereavement isn’t as strongly felt by children as it is in grown humans, but studies suggest that children do experience grief as a result of loss. A paper from the British Medical Journal (BMJ), as archived by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, suggests that children already possess “complex behavioral systems” when they’re born.

If a child loses his or her parent as a toddler, the child may experience several emotions during the bereavement which include:

  • Behavioral issues
  • Despair
  • Detachment
  • Emotional problems
  • Protest

In addition to the emotional trauma experienced by very young children, a variety of behaviors may also manifest during grief. The grief process for children may feature:

  • Bedwetting
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Regression (for example, sucking a thumb again)
  • Sleeping problems

The entry in the BMJ suggests that preparing a child for a loss or separation may reduce the severity of a child’s experience. Activities like attending a funeral or a viewing of a deceased parent may help the child cope with the situation.

Responses to Death by Children

The way in which children react to death and other events that cause grief don’t always resemble what adults might experience. Unfortunately, caretakers and parents may have a difficult time understanding how to comfort a child who grieves because of the differences in how the process manifests itself in children.

In a publication called “After a Loved One Dies – How Children Grieve,” the authors suggest that the way to help a child cope with grief is by encouraging them to express their feelings. Just as adults do, children may try to hide how they feel during the grief process.

Not all children will agree to share their feelings, and some of the ways children may express their grief may include certain physical activities. Children will engage in activities to express their grief because they aren’t aware that speaking about their emotional distress is an appropriate way to reduce the severity of their feelings.

According to “After a Loved One Dies,” some of the activities children may use to work through their grief include:

  • Dancing
  • Drawing
  • Playing
  • Singing
  • Writing

It’s up to caretakers, parents, or guardians to recognize changes in the way a child expresses himself to recognize that the child is in the midst of the grieving process.

Every Child is Different

Just as adults each have a grieving process that’s unique to that person, children also experience grief in a variety of ways, depending on their personality. According to the National Cancer Institute, several demographic factors and other characteristics may change the way a child deals with grief.

Some of those personality factors and characteristics include:

  • Age of the child
  • Closeness of the relationship with the deceased
  • Previous experiences with grief
  • Size of the family
  • Stability of family life

Figuring out what is the grief process for a child requires careful observance of these personality factors after the event occurs. For example, a child who loses a grandparent he can’t remember meeting might not have as difficult a time dealing with the death as he would a sibling or parent with whom he shared his life.

Children and Pet Loss

Loss of a parent, sibling, or another human family member isn’t the only life experience for children that causes grief. Losing a pet causes grief for a child, just as it does a parent or adult. Sometimes, the grief a human experiences after losing a pet is so acute that speaking with a mental health professional is necessary.

The Blue Cross, a pet charity in the United Kingdom, offers tips for creating a helpful and nurturing environment for a child after the loss of a pet.

  • Notification: A child should learn about the pet’s death through a close family member. Learning about it from a stranger may make the situation confusing.
  • Encouragement: A child’s feelings might not be immediately obvious. He or she should feel encouraged to speak and share.
  • Clarity: The words used to speak about the pet’s death should be clear and simple. Euphemisms are lost on young children. “Death” or “died” is better than “no longer with us.”
  • Explanation: Parents or guardians should be prepared to talk about how or why the pet died. Honesty and transparency are essential to the child’s understanding.
  • Professional help: If a child needs a long time to understand a pet’s death, professional help may be required to help the child fully recover.

Sometimes, having a funeral or burial for the pet may help the child find closure and say goodbye. Allowing the child to take part in the burial by covering the pet at the burial or helping to make a gravestone is another way to help the child confront and conquer grief about a pet.

Explaining the Concept of Death to Children

One of the ways that parents may help a child process his or her grief is by explaining what death means. In addition to using simple language that uses direct words like “death” and “died” instead of euphemisms, children should be taught what death means and that it’s not just a holiday where someone will eventually return.

Although the developmental level of a child will influence whether he or she can truly understand the concept of death, there are several lessons that help children deal with their emotions. The Children’s Hospital of Orange County offers a list of these important concepts.

  • Universal: Death eventually happens to all living beings.
  • Irreversible: Death is permanent and cannot be undone.
  • Nonfunctioning: The body stops working after death.
  • Cause: Explaining the cause of death.

It’s vital to note a child may understand only some of these concepts, depending on the child’s age. A very young child may understand that everything dies, but may not grasp that death is a permanent condition. However, young children shouldn’t be shielded from such concepts because of their age. Communicating with children about their grief is one of the most powerful options a parent has during the grief process.

How Teenagers Deal with Grief

Infants and toddlers may not understand how to process grief, but older children and teenagers may also have problems dealing with the emotion and process. The grief process for teenagers adds yet another layer of complexity in the grieving process and how older children and people who have not yet reached adulthood may deal with grief.

However, according to The National Center for Grieving Children & Families (NCGCF), teenagers respond well when an adult tries to help the teen work through the grief.

The NCGCF explains several principles that are at work when a teen grieves and suggests that grieving is a natural process for all teens and that each teenager will experience grief in a different way. Some teens may cry and show sadness. Other teens may approach the situation with laughter and humor.

Teens need to understand that there are no incorrect ways to handle grief and that the experience of a friend might not be the same as what a teen feels when he or she is faced with the same situation of loss or bereavement. Further, parents or guardians should explain that grief isn’t a brief process that’s over quickly. Grieving may occur for months or even years after the event occurs.

Communication is Essential for All

The grief process for children is just as complex and difficult as that of adults, and whether the family experiences an unexpected passing or whether the event is something for which the family may prepare, it’s important to engage in consistent communication.

The worst thing that can happen to a family when processing grief is that the event isn’t discussed, and everyone keeps his or her emotions bottled up inside. Keep the lines of communication open between all family members to reduce lasting emotional distress associated with the event.

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