Children may not fully grasp the grief process; however, they understand it in a way that adults don’t. I learned more from watching my children and nieces and nephews grieve than I did from watching adults.
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 cannot be fooled. They know when something is wrong or when something “bad” has happened. Not discussing it with them, doesn’t make it go away. Allowing them to see you cry because your heart is broken is not weak or shameful. Letting them know that they are safe in the midst of chaos and that you will all get through this together… is a gift. 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 will 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.
Yes, children are resilient, but they will be even more resilient when given the tools to cope with life’s tragedies.