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When Children Experience Grief

  

Understanding & Helping Children Cope with Death, Divorce, and Other Losses

Defining Grief
“Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern of behavior” (James & Friedman, 2001).

The Hospice Foundation of America refers to grief as a reaction to loss.

"The term grief describes the healing process, which includes the ups & downs, the adaptations to change, & the numerous small negotiations, bringing a person to a new dimension of life” (Perschy, 1997). 

  • Obvious losses are those experienced through death, divorce, moving, or health matters.

  •  Hidden losses include, but are not limited to, a loss of safety, loss of trust, financial loss, loss of control, or loss of identity such as when a family blends. 

  • When children are not able to grieve, they can experience persistent nightmares, sleep/eating disorders, depression, risk of suicide, school difficulties, and other stress related disorders.

Developmental Characteristics

A child’s understanding of loss, especially death, is closely tied to their cognitive level and age.

Ages 2-7, Children may:

¯    Not understand the finality of death

¯    Question death, such as how the dead eat, sleep, go to the bathroom

¯    Feel they did something to cause the loss

¯    Understand precise concrete information

 Ages 7-11, Children may:

¯     Begin to see death as irreversible, but feel it will not happen to them for some time

¯     Personify death as a person, ghost or spirit

¯     Feel death only happens to the sick & elderly

¯     Begin to see death as universal, final, & inevitable

¯     Have nightmares about loved ones dying

 Ages 12-18, Children may:

¯     Romanticize & dramatize death

¯     Fantasize about own funeral or death

¯     Feel of invincible and challenge death with high-risk activities

¯ Repress their expressions of grief because of a strong desire to fit in with their peers

The Grief Process

Emotions related to loss: Pain, Sadness, Grief, Anger, Guilt (Vernon, 2004)

The following stages describe a pattern many experience as they go through the grieving process: 

 1.  Numbing, shock, denial

2.   Anger, searching, questioning, bargaining

3.  Disorganization, despair, depression

4.  Completion, acceptance, reconciliation, reorganization

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 Related to the stages of grieving are the tasks one must go through as they heal. 

 Awareness of these tasks can help a grieving person take an active role in the process of healing (Perschy, 1997):   

1.  The task of understanding and accepting the loss

2.  The task of grieving and experiencing the grief

3.  The task of commemorating and confirming the reality of the loss and adjusting to a changed environment

4.  Moving on

Assessing a Child’s Loss

Important Issues to Consider:

1.  Individual factors

¯   Developmental and chronological age

¯   Temperament

        How does child handle daily stress? 

        How has the child handled loss in the past?

        How does the child handle change?

¯    Social, school, & mental functioning

2.  Factors related to loss

¯   Was the loss sudden or anticipated?

3.  Cultural, familial, and religious background

¯   Was the child involved in mourning rituals?

¯   How are their friends/peers reacting to the loss?

¯   What are the family’s religious and cultural beliefs?

 Behavioral Characteristics of Grief in Children: 

forgetfulness, disorganization, inability to concentrate, lack of motivation or interest,

impatience or low tolerance, regressive behaviors, physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches),

clinginess & whiney moods, temporary drop in grades

 

Helping Your Child Cope With Loss

Reading together is one of the most useful strategies in helping children and adolescents understand and move on when they have experienced loss.

Counselors can read to children to facilitate discussion or offer books to parents to discuss with their children.  Reading books about loss helps introduce the topic whether in a group, working with an individual or in a classroom guidance setting. Books are often written from the perspective of an animal or object, or can be someone else explaining their feelings.
 

 Suggested Reading

Henkes, Kevin. Sun & Spoon. 1st ed. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1997.

Bunting, Eve and Rand, Ted. The memory string. New York: Clarion Books, 2000.

Creech, Sharon.  Chasing Redbird. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.

Rylant, Cynthia.  Missing May.  New York: Orchard Books, 1992.

Wiles, Deborah. Each little bird that sings. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005.

Buscaglia, Leo. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. Thorofare, NJ: SLACK Incorporated.

Support groups or Camps such as the Comfort Zone Camp in Richmond or Full Circle Grief Center (804-241-9662) can be helpful when children start to work through their grief. Counselors use activities that can help children work through their emotions such as the creation of memory books, painting or writing about the loss and sharing with others who are experiencing similar feelings. Teaching children problem solving strategies will also help them learn how to manage difficult emotions and changes in their environment.

Keys Things to Remember When Working With Grieving Children

¯  Adults model grieving behavior

¯  “Maybe it’s better to feel bad, when feeling bad is the normal reaction to an event” (James & Friedman, 2001).

¯  Do not try to replace the loss

¯  It is okay to share about sadness, you do not have to grieve alone

¯  It is okay to be human, grieving is not a sign of weakness

¯  Children also need time to mourn their loss

An essential part of grieving is sharing about the loss, be a listening ear.

Please contact Mrs. Donaldson (723-2308) for more information
or if you have any questions or concerns.

Thank you

 

 

 Our Mission:  Hanover County School Counselors provide all students educational services, in collaboration with parents, school and the community, that foster
                       academic, career and social/emotional growth toward lifelong success and effective, responsible citizenship for a diverse and changing world.

 Our Mission:  Hanover County School Counselors provide all students educational services, in collaboration with parents, school and the community, that foster
                       academic, career and social/emotional growth toward lifelong success and effective, responsible citizenship for a diverse and changing world.