There is nothing in a child’s life to prepare them for death. While children pass through the same stages of grief as adults, due to their limited life experiences, they will grieve differently. It is important to remember that every person and child grieves differently and at his or her own pace.
Children experience loss and grief in many different circumstances. The sadness they feel due to the loss of a parent or other loved one may be experienced in many different ways over time.
Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, described grief as having at least five specific stages, moving from denial to anger to bargaining, then to depression and finally acceptance. In fact, while this is a useful framework for describing the components of grief, people do not move through the stages in a linear fashion. Recent research supports a more dynamic experience with movement in and out of these states over time.
This is the first stage of grief. Children want to continue to believe that everything is okay and that nothing bad has actually happened. If they were to take in all the emotion related to the loss right away, it would be too overwhelming so they may deny the loss thus giving their body and mind have a little time to adjust to the way things are now without the deceased.
During this stage, a child may blame others for their difficulties. This particular stage can last for days, weeks, months and years. It is when the earliest feelings are replaced by frustration and anxiety. Kids may be angry, irritable, and difficult to get along with. It is best for your child and others involved with your child to encourage expression of and discussion about their angry feelings.
A child may start to exhibit behaviors that seem very positive, including appearing to be very mature. School work may improve dramatically. The child may believe that doing everything “just right” will fix the situation. Bargaining is often accompanied by guilt. This is basically our way of negotiating with the hurt and pain of the loss.
This phase may be a delayed but often occurs when reality really sinks in. During this stage of grief, intense sadness, decreased sleep, reduced appetite, and loss of motivation are common.
Finally, children often enter this stage once they have processed their initial grief emotions, are able to accept that the loss has occurred and cannot be undone, and are once again able to plan for their futures and re-engage in daily life.
It is important to recognize that children, like adults, may move between the different stages at different rates and can jump around between each phase. Recovery is more of a process than an event.
Parents can help their children by grieving with them, listening, offering love and reassurance, helping memorialize the deceased, encouraging questions, and seeking professional help if needed.
About Charlene Khaghan:
A mother of five children, Charlene’s husband passed away suddenly when their youngest child was only three years old. Not only was she forced to deal with her own pain from the loss, she had to find ways to help her children deal with their own feelings of grief and sadness.
Khaghan has a master’s degree in special education and LMSW in social work. She taught high school special education for many years and currently works as a therapist in a university counseling center.
In her newly released book, A Tiny Step Forward, author Charlene Khaghan lets young children know that if they have lost someone close, be it friend, pet or family member, it is okay to feel upset and miss the person they are grieving. And, in the days that follow, it is okay to once again feel happy and to enjoy life as their loved one would have wanted for them.
When it comes to explaining grief to a child, this book can help children know they are not alone and normalize what they are experiencing.