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Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is observed every year on the third Thursday in November. It is a day that brings attention to the effect that grief can have on a child and to help make sure every child receives the support they need.

When I was 10, my maternal grandfather (Papa as we called him), died suddenly and unexpectedly the week before school started. I was confused, devastated, and unsure of what was happening.

Over the next few hours and days, family members and friends took turns making sure my brother and I were fed, bathed and went to bed on time. While everyone was trying to keep things “normal”, nothing was the same as it used to be. I remember thinking “Why is nobody talking to us about Papa?!”. We were completely in the dark about how he died and none of our adults were telling us what was going on. At 10 years old, I was just starting to understand the permanency of death. I understood Papa died, but I did not understand what happened after the funeral. I remember feeling an uncomfortableness in the air at Grandma and Papa’s house. The familiar now seemed very unfamiliar. I had so many questions. When would we have to start school? Would Grandma live alone in their house? What would happen to all of Papa’s stuff? How long would we feel sad? Was it okay if we felt happy sometimes? Why did my stomach hurt a lot?

When a grieving child asks me those kinds of questions, I often reflect back to my childhood. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was grief. Any major life change can cause grief including the death of a loved one or family pet, a diagnosis of terminal or chronic illness, incarceration,divorce, or an injury.. There are no magic solutions that make grief go away. As with adults, children’s grief journeys take time. Children process grief in their own way and on their own time table. Grief is normal, and it is a whole body experience.

Here are some common grief experiences for children based on developmental stage.

Very Young Child (Ages 2-4)

  • Doesn’t understand death due to lack of development of time/space concepts

  • Death is temporary and reversible

  • “Magical Thinking”: “If I wish something, it could happen.”

  • Fear of abandonment, feelings of rejection

  • Confusion with euphemisms i.e. “He’s in a better place” or “He is gone”

  • Grieve in small increments

How to Help:

· Allow children to express emotions

· Answer questions honestly/openly using age appropriate language

· Avoid euphemisms and simply state the person has died

· Offer hugs and comforting

· Allow child’s own time-table

Early Elementary Years (Ages 5-9)

  • Tend to personify death

  • Death becomes final

  • Death is real but doesn’t happen to them

  • Preoccupation with “morbid” details

  • Fears: of God, of separation

  • Doesn’t have vocabulary to express feelings: acts them out

  • Guilt: “magical thinking” continues

How To Help:

· Give facts using concrete language; avoid secrets

· Provide structure in school/at home

· Answer questions honestly/openly

· Reflect back feelings; reassure concerns of safety

· Allow repetition in discussion

· Follow the child’s lead and time-table

Late Elementary/Early Middle School (Ages 9-11)

  • Begins to have biological, more rational understanding of death

  • Concern over death of parent

  • Difficulty talking about feelings concerning death

  • Predominant feelings: guilt and anger

  • Develop facades of joking, unconcerned, etc.

  • Short attention/tolerance spans in dealing with death

How To Help:

· Talk about the loss openly

· Address concerns of how this disrupts their life

· Provide structure, predictability

· Be prepared to deal with anger, encourage physical activity

· Expect learning to be interrupted

· Respect the individual’s time-table

Pre-Adolescent/Adolescent/Middle and High School

  • Understand death much like adults

  • May see self as immune to death; risk taking behaviors

  • Independence/dependence transition; thus fear, confusion

  • Look for meaning in death

  • Strong peer identification makes peer death especially hard

  • Will act out and verbalize feelings

  • Idealization of dead person

  • Anger about death, loss of hopes and dreams

  • May have strong sense of responsibility to “caregive” masking own feelings

How to Help:

· Spend time building trust

· Be willing to listen to story many times over

· Open and honest discussion of feelings

· Encourage writing, drawing and keeping a journal

· Address their issues

· Help child connect with a support system

· Respect the time-table of each child

· Expect decreased attention span, possible changes in performance

· Be mindful of anniversaries

· Recognize cumulative grief

Assure children that the adults in their world are present and always there to listen. Let them know that they can talk openly about their loss or their loved one who died. Assure them that they do not need to “be strong” and encourage them to feel whatever feelings are coming up. Keeping lines of communication open can help validate children’s thoughts and feelings.

On November 16, 2017 I will be wearing blue to show my support to grieving children everywhere. Will you join me?

Photo Credit: Caring Foundation

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