4650 W 20th Street, Greeley, CO 80634
by Dr. Debby Baker, Clinical Psychologist - Program Director, Community Grief Center
November 16th is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. Each year, an average of three hundred kids in Weld County lose a parent/caregiver, sibling or close friend. Hundreds more lose other people close to them – grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Helping these children cope with their grief is crucial to their future happiness. Grief that is ignored or not dealt with can disrupt healthy development and result in depression, school failure, substance abuse and other unhealthy, nonproductive behaviors. And as children change developmental stages, they revisit the death of their loved one with new understanding and new questions.
But how do we help a child who is grieving? How do we even know they are grieving—do they grieve like adults? The answer is no. Depending on the age of the child, they may have no real understanding of what death means. It’s important that we first help them to understand what death is and to be open to answering their ongoing questions as they try to make sense of it. They may not demonstrate their grief like adults do, but they are grieving as they try to make sense of what has happened.
One of the best quotes about children and death comes from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a world-renowned psychologist from Fort Collins who specializes in grief. He states, “Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve.” Think about it - from the moment our children are born (and even before) we are connecting with our infants showing them our love and care, and they are attaching to us. If their caregiver disappears from their life, they will miss them and demonstrate their unhappiness with their emotions—sadness, anger, despair. Loving, consistent caregiving is essential to helping them reconnect and feel safe.
Concrete thinking in children is individualistic, but begins in the 7-11 age group.
Before then, children may have a generalized idea about death, but they may see it as reversible, and have a limited capacity to deal with it. Younger children and pre-teens often try to make sense of their world through play. You can help them by being tuned in to what they are saying and doing during their play, helping to explain and reinforce the reality of death—and the promise of safety in their world—that you will continue to be there for them. When a loved one dies, they can become fearful that someone else they love will disappear. These fears can be calmed by words and actions that mitigate their worries.
As the child grows, between the years 9-12, they now can understand that death is irreversible and final. (Note the overlap in ages, as every child matures differently.) Death as a universal concept is understood. Their independence is fragile, and they have some child-like and adult-like behaviors in everyday life. It’s important to help them by answering their questions with honesty and sensitivity—being available to talk, encouraging their questions, allowing them personal control as much as safety allows, and letting them know in all ways they are safe. If saying the name of their loved one makes Mommy cry, they will stop talking about them. They need to know it’s OK to say their name, to cry, and to talk about them—talking is helpful to making sense of it all.
As they become teenagers, a challenging time for everyone as they work to understand themselves and move towards independence, they understand grief, and like adults they struggle to manage their grief. It’s important to let them grieve without assuming they’re now old enough to manage it without help. Teenagers can be egocentric—feel “all the worlds a stage,” and everyone is looking at them. They fear saying or doing the wrong thing, and they appear to resent help while at the same time craving it from their loved ones. We can help them by letting them be teenagers, but reinforcing you are a safe place for them to land. Maintaining appropriate boundaries and structure is important, and encouraging them to talk about their grief is important. Their grief can be complicated by normal adolescent development, but they still need the safety net only loved ones can provide.
Our goal as parents is to raise well-functioning, productive citizens who can live well and love well. We have the responsibility to guide their growth by answering their questions and creating an environment that welcomes their thoughts.