December 17th was my youngest daughter’s birthday. It’s another birthday to celebrate her, the accomplishments she has made in her life, the love she has given to all of us, and the gifts she has shared freely with the world. It’s also another birthday celebrated without her dad. In fact, it’s the 25th birthday she has celebrated without him. I don’t say that in a ‘woe is me kind of way’ … it’s simply the fact. The truth is we had to learn how to celebrate without him, even though our hearts were broken. And, it was my two daughters and nieces and nephews, who taught us to embrace birthdays, special occasions, and the holidays even though precious members of our family had passed.
We are often afraid for children to experience the pain of loss. As parents and adults, we understand how loss feels; therefore, we want to shelter our children and protect them from feeling that overwhelming sadness. The reality is that children, even if you shelter and protect them, will experience loss and they will feel sad. Isn’t it better to give them the tools to reconcile grief so they have the coping mechanisms needed to face life head on? I think so.
Children are strong and they will give you strength. More importantly, children have a “natural rhythm to their grief.” Children will allow themselves to feel the pain and sadness and when it becomes too much for them they will shut it off for a while and go off and play. Children will cry and express their sorrow one minute, and the next minute they may ask if their best friend can come for pizza and a sleepover. They inherently understand the need to “pace” their grief. We would all fare better if we allowed ourselves to “grieve like a child.”
Children have the same potential responses to grief that an adult has: confusion, sadness, sleep and eating disruptions, and tears etc. They are also at risk, as an adult is, if they are not given a safe place to do the work of mourning. The difference will be that an adult may be able to express what they are feeling, but the child may not be able to verbalize what is going on for them. Therefore, watching for signs of regression (e.g. a child who is potty-trained now has accidents), acting-out (e.g. outbursts) and eating/sleep disturbances are all “signs” that a child is struggling with inner turmoil.