Exploring Grief With Your Child. Author(s): Enchante Emotional Literacy Series

Exploring Grief With Your Child. Author(s): Enchante Emotional Literacy Series

Grief is the automatic emotional reaction human beings have to the experience of loss. To let ourselves feel sadness, loss, emptiness, anger, loneliness and pain which are a part of grief is difficult. The grief process is, in itself, not harmful or permanently damaging. It is only when we do not allow the process to occur or to complete itself that grief can cause emotional, mental, vocational and physical harm even years later.

Grief reactions which last over time require that your child understand that something or someone is gone, never to return, and that s/he feels this as a loss. Once a child has the mental and emotional capacity to comprehend loss in this way (usually starting at about age seven), s/he will experience grief. This is a predictable process which proceeds in a loosely linear fashion. The purpose of this emotional process called grieving is to acknowledge, experience, release and heal the powerful feelings that are part of it.

Grief is a real emotion because it has both positive and negative aspects.

On the negative side are the shock, sadness, depression, anger, immobility and loss of motivation with which we are all familiar.

On the positive side grief gives us an opportunity to feel and release current feelings, as well as emotions which we may have blocked or repressed.

In addition, the shock of loss urges us to examine our lives in order to see what changes we want to make. Grief provides us with an opportunity to strengthen ourselves and grow.

The Grief Process

Grieving is an emotional process that follows a predictable process which proceeds in a loosely linear fashion. The purpose of grieving is to acknowledge, experience, release and heal the powerful feelings that are part of it.

a) Loss. The event of loss through death, divorce, birth, illness or major life change.

b) Protest. The mind resists accepting that loss has occurred. Feeling of shock, confusion, denial, guilt and anger, along with lowered self-esteem are part of this resistance. Behaviors which accompany this stage of grieving include:






Appetite and sleep disturbances

Aches and other physical changes

c) Despair. The reality of the loss is faced, which allows feelings to begin to move. As the loss is accepted, a person may cry, feel anguish or become depressed, especially if the anger that is felt is turned inward.

d) Detachment. The shock of the loss leads the griever into a feeling of being “in limbo,” with resultant withdrawal, low energy, apathy and loss of pleasure.

e) Integration and recovery. When adjustment to the loss is accomplished, a person begins to involve him/herself in life again, usually incorporating a redefinition of how that life will be led. Behaviors include taking an interest in the outside world, developing new and old friendships, and starting new ventures.

What Your Grieving Child Needs From You

a) Trust that your child is going through exactly what s/he needs to go through.

b) Honesty about what has happened and the feelings that come up (even if they seem contradictory), so that the fact of the loss can be squarely faced and processed.

c) Patience, which allows the grieving process to take as long as it takes, without judgment. This can include answering questions which may be asked over and over again.

d) Support and reassurance, that although loss has occurred in one area, other aspects of life are still intact.

e) Sharing of feelings, allowing you to express your grief as well (you are still in charge if you state that you choose to let yourself sob or feel angry).

f) Sensitivity to your child’s feelings and the profound nature of his/her experience.

g) Company for someone who already feels the emptiness of the loss and may experience loneliness (you don’t have to talk to give reassurance).

h) Responsiveness to questions, changes in mood and the good feelings which begin to emerge during the integration phase.If you cannot provide this kind of support because of your own grief, make the effort to bring in another adult who can help your child at this vulnerable time.

Regardless of the intensity or cause of your child’s grief reaction, it still occurs in this predictable sequence and needs to be allowed, supported and healed. When you know and understand the process, do not fear feelings and trust your child’s innate ability to work through those feelings, you will help your child to encounter and process his/her grief.

Unless a larger loss has occurred, you may not be aware of or accept your child’s grief. The death of a pet, change of school, damage to a favorite toy or non-fulfillment of a promise from an adult, can lead to grief reactions in your child which are equal to grief resulting from major losses.

Recognizing Grief Reactions

a) Denial. Your child may seem to deny or refuse to accept the death or loss.

b) Guilt. Guilt shows itself when your child feels personally at fault for the loss or death, feels bad because s/he is still healthy or alive and others are not, or believes s/he has caused the negative emotional behaviors of family and friends.

c) Anger. Anger results from something happening which your child believes should not have happened. (See “Exploring Anger With Your Child”.) Anger may be directed at the person or thing who is dead or gone, or it can be displaced onto peers, siblings and parents. Your child may be angry with you for not doing what was necessary in order to keep the death or loss from happening.

d) Panic. A world which seemed the same day after day and which was safe and secure has been shattered. It is easy to be frightened; even adult reassurance may not dissipate this panic.

e) Idealization. To make the loss less painful or final, your child may begin to imitate or idealize the person who has died or left.

f) Physical Complaints. Your child’s grief can manifest itself physically prior to processing and releasing his/her emotions, or if s/he does not receive assistance in releasing these emotions.

Your child’s specific reactions depend upon a number of factors:

a) his/her age

b) personality

c) relationship to the person or the loss

d) reactions of the people around him/her (Does talking about the loss upset others?)

e) ability to trust adults

f) where his/her attention is directed.

Children often show their grief in ways adults do not expect. They may become loud, aggressive and physically hyperactive or do projects with their hands (like building with wood) as their way of handling the powerful emotions which are pouring through them. If your child is moving through the process of grief, there is no cause for concern. Only emotions which are not moving through and out of us are cause for concern. Because so many emotions and steps are involved in the grief reaction, healing after a loss can take a considerable period of time. Children usually heal faster than adults.


21 thoughts on “Exploring Grief With Your Child. Author(s): Enchante Emotional Literacy Series

Michael O’DonoghuePosted on  4:52 pm - Feb 28, 2010

Generally a good article, but I do not like the line. ” Grieving is an emotional process that follows a predictable process which proceeds in a loosely linear fashion.” From our experience in counselling this is not the case. People can move back and foward in stages of grief. Cheers Michael O’Donoghue http://www.petsandpeople.com.au

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