Guiding Your Child Through Grief
By James P. Emswiler, M.A., M.Ed, Mary Ann Emswiler, M.A., M.P.S.
Forty-five-year-old Adam had finally found his dream job: selling heavy machinery internationally. He thrived on the challenge and the opportunity to travel in countries he'd only read about. His e-mails to friends glowed with happiness. Family photographs reflected his renewed zest for life. So his wife, Donna, didn't understand when she received a call two days before Thanksgiving saying that Adam had died in Belgium from an overdose of Valium. "Was he feeling too stressed out?" Donna wondered in anguish. "I know sometimes he'd take an over-the-counter stimulant because of all the rime changes. Did he take too much Valium to help him sleep? Was he depressed and hiding it from us? Did we miss something? We'll never know, but the questions haunt me."
Over time, as Adam's children responded to his death in surprising ways, the confusion mounted. Joe, an eighteen-year-old freshman who'd received a hockey scholarship to the college of his dreams, decided to return home and commute to a nearby state school. He spent most of his time with his old girlfriend, a high school senior, and with his family. Sixteen-year-old Andrew, whom Donna described as a "dedicated couch potato," signed up for both the school play and the town's spring soccer league. "We never see him," Donna commented. And Marcie, at eleven, hounded her mother to take her to a local support group for grieving kids.
"What do I do with all this?" Donna asked. "I'm not really concerned with Marcie. She seems to have found a place with other kids who are grieving. She says she feels like she fits in there and can really talk - which is what she does all the time anyway! Sometimes I think I should just permanently attach the telephone to her ear." Donna paused, reflecting.
"But I wonder if I should have let Joe return home," she continued. "He seems to be moving backward instead of forward. And although I'm glad Andrew's exercising-we always tried to get him to do that, as he keeps pointing out-it seems like too much. Should I force him to slow down? Is he just avoiding dealing with it all? Meanwhile, I don't want to do anything. I feel like we're in a quicksand of sadness, and the more we try to climb out, the more we're sucked down into it. We're just walking through the world like zombies. I'd just as soon take the phone off the hook or run away."
Grief, Donna was learning, expresses itself in a multitude of ways, as her children mourn Adam's death differently from one another and from their mother. Each child's grief pattern produces a different set of responses. But before we examine these differences, let's consider what the experience of grief has in common for all children.
A Child's Grief
Contrary to what others may tell you, your child will experience many of the same thoughts and emotions as you. She'll be sad, and she'll cry-although she may not let you see it. She'll worry about this new set of circumstances. She'll be angry and lonely and preoccupied, just as you are.
The difference is that she's still a child. She lacks your adult skills for understanding, coping with, and expressing what she's going through. She feels even less in control of her world than you do. Thus, she'll handle and work through her grief differently from you.
A child's process of mourning differs from that of an adult in eight specific ways.
Your Child's Grief Reflects His
Current Stage of Development
Even at four years of age. Josh was very clear: He did not want to attend his grandfather's wake. Finally, alter his parents made several attempts to learn why, the reason came out. He was scared to view his grandpas body because he had been told, "We've lost the head of the family." At four, Josh's thinking was literal-he thought he'd see his grandfather without a head, and that prospect frightened him too much.
Young children are still trying to figure out how the world works, and now they must also struggle to understand the death of a loved one. Even adults struggle with that, so consider how hard it must be for your child, with her limited life experiences and cognitive development. Depending on her age, she may not quite grasp concepts such as cancer or heart attack or soul or forever. Nor does she necessarily have the words to express what she is feeling or the emotional ability to understand feelings like regret, ambivalence, numbness, or even sorrow.
Your child's grief reaction will also be colored by what's important to him at this stage of life. Three-year-olds often feel anxious when their parents leave for a night out. A grieving three-year-old may struggle even more with that situation, since someone dear to him has left and never come back. He may fear that you'll do the same. By contrast, while your grieving adolescent may want to know where you're going when you leave to attend another child's sporting event or go on a camping trip, she'll usually cope just fine without you. In fact, she may enjoy the freedom! But since teens seek peer acceptance, she may struggle more with feeling different, since she may be the only teenager she knows who's grieving. She may crave a chance to talk with kids her own age who are immersed in the same pain she is.
The following sections describe common thoughts of grieving children at various developmental stages.