By Donna Kane, M.A.
Myth: Children are not affected by the death of someone they loved and they don’t experience grief.
Despite current research, there continues to be a lack of understanding about the needs of grieving children. After the death of a loved, everyone expresses their feelings in one way or another, though it may look different at various ages and stages of their lives. Jana DeCristofaro, LCSW, coordinator of children’s grief services at The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, says “Infants are aware when the person holding them does not smell the same, feel the same, and even carry them in the same way.”
Below are some key points to remember about how age affects the grieving process:
- Unlike adults, children grieve in spurts and cannot tolerate grieving for long periods of time;
- A child may appear to be handling a loss well, but an insignificant event may trigger a disproportionate response. For example, a preschool child may fall apart if a block falls off their tower rather than just picking it up and putting it back on the building. They may verbalize their grief by saying, “this would never happen if my Mom was here;” and
- Children are better able to handle the intensity of their grief by jumping in and out of it.
Adults need to recognize that if a child or teenager does not discuss their feelings, it does not mean they are not missing the person who died or feeling sad. Young people take cues from adults. They may be reluctant to share their feelings out of concern it may cause even greater sadness. It is not unusual for them to feel guilt after a loss, especially when the person is a parent. Children and teens may believe they somehow caused the person to die or if they had behaved better the person would be alive. If you care for a child, keep in mind:
- It is important to be honest with children and teens and make sure whatever is shared is age appropriate;
- Silence forces children to grieve alone, it does not protect them; and
- Children can attend funerals and participate in other family rituals. They need to be prepared for what they will experience and should never be forced to be present.
There is no timeline for grief. It will change over time, but grief does not end. Children do not have the ability to reconcile a loss until their mid-20’s. It’s important to acknowledge that everyone, especially children, need to be supported throughout all life stages when grief reappears.
If your wondering how to talk to your child about loss (pre-schoolers, middle schoolers or teenagers), join us for “The Language of Loss,” a free program on Wednesday, February 5, 7-8:30pm at Beth Tfiloh Congregation. Health professionals and educators will explore grief throughout the life cycle. Learn more here.
Donna Kane is a grief specialist for Jewish Community Services.
The Mitchell David Center for Hope and Healing supports children, teens, and families who have experienced the death of a loved one, particularly if that loved one was a child. Through age-appropriate programs, groups, and activities, The Center supports parents and siblings throughout their lives- immediately after a death and through all life stages when grief reappears.