Guiding children through loss and grief
By Diane E. Lykes, LCSW
In 1975, a teacher at a small suburban high school decided to teach a class called “Death Education”. His name was George Campbell and despite the controversy involved, he developed an in-depth curriculum for a class that would affect the lives of his students for years to come.
Many people in our society are uncomfortable talking about death. There is a general feeling that children should be shielded from the pain associated with loss wherever possible. However, loss is inevitable in all our lives and with our help, children can appreciate the feelings that are unique to this occasion, they can learn the skills to cope with these feelings and they can grow to appreciate and embrace life more fully.
George Campbell knew this and spent a good part of his teaching career helping students to understand and appreciate the complexities of loss. His curriculum included many guest speakers such as hospice workers, physicians, funeral directors, rescue squad personnel, police officers and clergy members.
Read on to learn a few different types of loss that children experience, how children and adolescents express grief and how we can guide them through the healing process.
Types of loss
It is estimated that over two million children in the United States experience the death of a parent before age 18. The percentage is much higher when the statistics include grandparents, relatives, siblings and friends. Many parents also report that the death of a beloved family pet can produce strong grief reactions in their children.
In addition to losses through death, there are many other ways that children experience loss. The high divorce rate in families, as well as major world events (9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami) often create a sense of uncertainty in our children. Unfortunately, the media sensationalizes tragedy and violence and children will rely on adults to reassure them and help maintain their sense of security.
How children express grief
Although adults and children grieve very differently children do grieve, and often, very deeply.
For infants and toddlers, grief is expressed through their behaviors as they have an inability to express themselves and do not understand the finality of death. They will display their grief by:
• Clinging to adults
• Temper tantrums
• Separation fears
6-9 years old have a very limited understanding of death. They still believe that the “boogey man” can snatch a person and often make up stories to try and understand their loss. They also believe that if they wish for something their mind has the ability to make it happen. As a result, they may fear that they caused the death by being angry with the person. Children at this age may display:
• Regression to earlier behaviors
• School problems such as lack of concentration and poor grades
By age 9 or 10 children begin to acquire a better understanding of death. At this age they can understand that death is a permanent state, cannot be reversed and that it will happen to everyone at some point in time.
Middle school age children often display the following symptoms as part of their grief process:
• Isolation and withdrawal
• Sleep disturbance
• Physical symptoms (headaches, stomachaches)
• Academic decline
• Withdrawal from adults
Finally, adolescents (13 and up) are clearly able to understand the significance of death and are at a stage where they are beginning to question their own mortality. They often turn to their friends as they struggle toward independence from their parents, yet they feel overwhelmed by the emotions that death brings about. They may express these reactions with:
• Depression and sadness
• Risk-taking behavior
• Fear of death
• Changes in sleep and appetite
• Academic problems
It is important to remember that these symptoms are actually a normal part of the grieving process. Most often they do not last and children and adolescents return to their previous level of functioning. In fact, if these behaviors do continue over time and become more pronounced, it is important to seek professional help.
How we can help
The following is a list of helpful strategies adults can use to help children move through the normal process of grief. These strategies have also been divided into categories based on the age group of the children.
• Use words like “dead” or “death” rather than “went to sleep” or “passed away”. These phrases will only confuse a child in this age group.
• Give plenty of physical affection, attention and comforting words such as “you are safe” and “I am here for you”.
• Stick to day and nighttime routines as much as possible.
Elementary school aged children:
• Reassure the child that they are not to blame.
• Limit TV viewing of world tragedies that can fuel more uncertainty.
• Read books written for children about death and dying.
• Give children in this age group a choice about whether to attend the funeral or memorial services. If the child does want to attend, prepare them beforehand for what they may see and hear, including the grief others may show.
• As much as possible, maintain the same household routines.
• Reassure children that it is all right for them to play and laugh again.
• Be available when they are ready to talk rather than expecting them to talk.
• If they ask questions, be honest. If you don’t know the answer, then say so.
• Enlist the help of a minister, close family friend or close peer to check in with them. Sometimes they distance from parents—a normal short-term reaction to grief.
• Enroll them in support group (contact Hospice for more information) with other teenagers who have also experienced significant loss. This connection can be a very powerful part of their grief work.
• Encourage the use of journals and expression through art.
• Remind them that it’s the person’s life, not the death, that’s significant.
In their outstanding book, On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler describe their view on why it is so important to grieve:
“We grieve for two reasons. First, those who grieve well, live well. Second, and most important, grief is the healing process of the heart, soul and mind; it is the path that returns us to wholeness. It shouldn’t be a matter of if you will grieve; the question is when will you grieve. And until we do, we suffer from the effects of that unfinished business”.
Just out of curiosity, I contacted that small suburban high school to see if George Campbell was still teaching his “Death Education” class. Unfortunately, a secretary in the guidance office informed me that when he retired in 1995, this class retired with him. Maybe we can all do our small part in carrying on his legacy by teaching children about death and its connection to living. l