How the Grief Process Impacts Children

The Grief Process is not an easy process for anyone to go through, let alone children! Learn how to coach a child through a Grief Process!

Grief Process

As an extraordinarily common emotion, grief is an experience that treats everyone a little differently; however, similarities usually exist between most people who experience grief. The feeling is often associated with losing a loved one, but it may also occur in lesser forms after any loss, like the loss of a pet. Additionally, children, teens, and adults may find each approach to the grief process different.

Common Feelings During Grief

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which operates out of London, England, the grief process is not a single feeling so much as it is a series of feelings that occur over time as the process continues. Sometimes, mental health professionals define “stages” of grief. According to PsychCentral, the “5 Stages of Loss and Grief” include:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Also, according to WebMD, grief is expressed in four ways: physical, emotional, social, and spiritual expressions. However, the grieving process isn’t always predictable and isn’t a set schedule of emotions that everyone experiences.

Further, preexisting conditions like anxiety and depression may increase the severity of the grieving process. In addition, children may experience an entirely different sort of grieving process than adults.

Bereavement in Infants and Toddlers

A common assumption among adults is that children don’t feel as strongly feel loss, grief, and bereavement as it is ingrown humans, but studies suggest that children experience grief due to a loss. A paper from the British Medical Journal (BMJ), archived by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, suggests that children already possess “complex behavioral systems” when born.

If a child loses their parent as a toddler, the child may experience several emotions during the bereavement, which include:

  • Behavioral issues
  • Despair
  • Detachment
  • Emotional problems
  • Protest

In addition to the emotional trauma experienced by very young children, various behaviors may manifest during grief. The grief process for children may feature:

  • Bedwetting
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Regression (for example, sucking a thumb again)
  • Sleeping problems

The entry in the BMJ suggests that preparing a child for a loss or separation may reduce the severity of a child’s experience. Activities like attending a funeral or viewing a deceased parent may help the child cope with the situation.

Responses to Death by Children

How children react to death and other events that cause grief doesn’t always resemble what adults might experience. Unfortunately, caretakers and parents may have difficulty understanding how to comfort a child who grieves because of the differences in how the process manifests itself in children.

In a publication called “After a Loved One Dies – How Children Grieve,” the authors suggest that the way to help a child cope with grief is by encouraging them to express their feelings. Just as adults do, children may try to hide how they feel during the grief process.

Not all children will agree to share their feelings, and some ways children may express their grief may include specific physical activities. Children will engage in activities to express their grief because they need to be made aware that speaking about their emotional distress is an appropriate way to reduce the severity of their feelings.

According to “After a Loved One Dies,” some of the activities children may use to work through their grief include:

  • Dancing
  • Drawing
  • Playing
  • Singing
  • Writing

It’s up to caretakers, parents, or guardians to recognize changes in how a child expresses himself to recognize that the child is in the midst of the grieving process.

Every Child is Different

Just as adults each have a grieving process unique to that person, children also experience grief in various ways, depending on their personalities. According to the National Cancer Institute, several demographic factors and other characteristics may change the way a child deals with grief.

Some of those personality factors and characteristics include:

  • Age of the child
  • The closeness of the relationship with the deceased
  • Previous experiences with grief
  • Size of the family
  • Stability of family life

After the event, the grief process for a child requires careful observance of these personality factors. For example, a child who loses a grandparent he can’t remember meeting might not have as difficult a time dealing with the death as he would a sibling or parent with whom he shared his life.

Children and Pet Loss

The loss of a parent, sibling, or another human family member isn’t the only life experience for children that causes grief. Losing a pet causes grief for a child, just as it does a parent or adult. Sometimes, a human experiences grief after losing a pet is so acute that speaking with a mental health professional is necessary.

The Blue Cross, a pet charity in the United Kingdom, offers tips for creating a helpful and nurturing environment for a child after losing a pet.

  • Notification: A child should learn about the pet’s death through a close family member. Learning about it from a stranger may make the situation more straightforward.
  • Encouragement: A child’s feelings might not be immediately obvious. They should feel encouraged to speak and share.
  • Clarity: The words used to describe the pet’s death should be clear and straightforward. Euphemisms are lost on young children. “Death” or “died” is better than “no longer with us.”
  • Explanation: Parents or guardians should be prepared to talk about how or why the pet died. Honesty and transparency are essential to the child’s understanding.
  • Professional help: If a child needs a long time to understand a pet’s death, Who may require professional help to help the child fully recover?

Sometimes, having a funeral or burial for the pet may help the child find closure and say goodbye. Allowing the child to take part in the burial by covering the pet at the burial or helping to make a gravestone is another way to help the child confront and conquer grief about a pet.

Explaining the Concept of Death to Children

One of the ways that parents may help a child process their grief is by explaining what death means. In addition to using simple language that uses direct words like “death” and “died” instead of euphemisms, children should be taught what death means and that it’s not just a holiday where someone will eventually return.

Although a child’s developmental level will influence whether they truly understand the concept of death, several lessons help children deal with their emotions. The Children’s Hospital of Orange County lists these important concepts.

  • Universal: Death eventually happens to all living beings.
  • Irreversible: Death is permanent and cannot be undone.
  • Nonfunctioning: The body stops working after death.
  • Cause: Explaining the cause of death.

It’s vital to note that a child may understand only some of these concepts, depending on their age. A very young child may know that everything dies but may not grasp that death is a permanent condition. However, Who shouldn’t shield young children from such concepts because of their age? Communicating with children about their grief is one of the most potent options a parent has during the grief process.

How Teenagers Deal with Grief

Infants and toddlers may not understand how to process grief, but older children and teenagers may also have problems dealing with the emotion and processes. The grief process for teenagers adds yet another layer of complexity to the grieving process and how older children and people who have not yet reached adulthood may deal with grief.

However, according to The National Center for Grieving Children & Families (NCGCF), teenagers respond well when an adult tries to help them work through the grief.

The NCGCF explains several principles at work when a teen grieves and suggests that grieving is a natural process for all teens and that each teenager will experience grief differently. Some teens may cry and show sadness. Other teens may approach the situation with laughter and humour.

Teens need to understand that there are no incorrect ways to handle grief and that the experience of a friend might not be the same as what a teen feels when faced with the same situation of loss or bereavement. Further, parents or guardians should explain that grief isn’t a straightforward process that’s over quickly. Grieving may occur for months or even years after the event occurs.

Communication is Essential for All

The grief process for children is just as complex and challenging as that of adults. Whether the family experiences an unexpected passing or the event is something for which the family may prepare, it’s essential to engage in consistent communication.

When processing grief, the worst thing that can happen to a family is that the event isn’t discussed, and everyone keeps their emotions bottled up inside. Keep the lines of communication open between all family members to reduce the lasting emotional distress associated with the event.