Children Grieve, Too
Take a few minutes to imagine yourself being five years old again: you’re starting to make sense of the world, you’re gaining independence, and becoming more social with friends and family. Life seems to be going normally until one day someone tells you that your mother is sick. You watch her slowly start to fade, but your five-year-old brain cannot comprehend what is going on… and no one is explaining it to you. Then, one day, she dies. She is not here anymore, and you don’t know where your mommy went. Is she in heaven? What is heaven? What is death? What does “dying” even mean?
Over the course of your life, no one really talks about your mom’s death or how you’re doing. They let you go to the funeral, but you’re not sure how to process that. You’re hurting inside, and as the years go on, you grieve in different ways: as a child, in your pre-teen years, your adolescence, and definitely as you emerge into adulthood. Why doesn’t anyone understand what you’re going through? Why is no one talking about how hard it was to lose your mom? Where is the support?
How Do We Help Children Process Grief?
This description begs the question: how do we help children process grief? Before we delve into a topic that desperately needs to be discussed, it’s important to understand that everyone processes grief differently—no matter their age or how long it’s been since the death. Just like love, grief is lifelong. Our society isn’t the greatest at talking about death, grief, and uncomfortable emotions… but we need to start changing that: for us and our children.
Honesty is Best
In the story shared, your five-year-old self found out that your mother was “sick.” That is probably the first thing that needs to be addressed when talking about how children process grief. If a child is told that someone is sick, and then that special person dies, that young child will begin to associate “sickness” with death—which may lead to that child experiencing anxiety and a heightened arousal state, wondering if every time someone gets sick, they will die. It may sound cliché, but when talking to children about death and dying, honesty is truly the best policy (make sure to read about appropriate developmental milestones for different age groups). Obviously, you will want to break everything down in a simpler fashion (even though none of this is simple) and tell them the truth about what’s going on.
Allow Children to Feel Their Emotions
Another critical component in helping children process grief is something that adults need to practice as well: allowing them to feel all of their emotions. Emotions are fleeting for all humans, but they come and go even quicker with children. It’s normal for grieving children to experience anger and sadness and then continue playing with their toys. Expressing anger and playing are both healthy coping strategies. It’s actually therapeutic to allow all emotions to exist at the same time, knowing that it’s normal and okay to be happy and sad all in the same moment.
Hold Space for Children
In order to help children process their grief, we need to make sure they know they’re not alone. We need to make sure their feelings are normalized and validated. We need to make sure that they see us grieving. We need to make sure they see what healthy coping strategies look like—not negative ones, like repression, substance use, or denial. We need to hold space for all of their emotions: hard, good, and difficult ones. We need to hold space for them to tell their stories: through coloring, drawing, journaling, or writing letters. But most importantly, we need to remember that children grieve, too.
All my love,
Dr. Nikki Scott, LMSW, CAGCS, C.B.T.
About the Author:
Nikki Scott is a proud mama and wife. She is also a social worker, grief counselor, published author, and college professor with a doctorate in social work, an advanced grief counseling certification, a certification in bereavement trauma, and training in perinatal mental health.
Nikki is a member of the National Association of Social Workers, the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, and the National Center for Crisis Management. Nikki aspires to make the world a better place through kindness, compassion, and validating others on their journeys through life. She lives in Michigan with her husband Cameron, their sons Liam and Brodie, and their fur babies.
For more information about Nikki, or to purchase her book, check out https://www.mamaletstalkabout.com/ – books can be purchased on Amazon.
Amber is the proud mother to four beautiful children, Damian (27), Rosaleigh (14), Carlyn (11), and Naomi (8). Her family also includes four cats.
She loves being a stay-at-home mom and feels blessed to be able to care for her children full-time and provide them with so many opportunities through Metro Detroit Mommy. In addition to Metro Detroit Mommy, Amber has a passion for hosting karaoke with Malibu Entertainment. She enjoys the metro Detroit nightlife especially, singing, dancing and meeting new people.