Losing a loved one: A child’s perspective

Carmen BryceBlog posts

Child bereavement

A fundamental sense of loss can accompany a variety of life events.

Death of a loved one, divorce, the moving away of children or even close friends can leave one feeling bereaved and alone.

We all experience this sense of pain and loss in slightly different ways, As they say, “there’s no right way to grieve”.

In the short poem, ‘She is Gone’, the poet writes, “You can shed tears that she is gone, Or you can smile because she has lived.”

It’s a wonderful sentiment but coming to terms with bereavement can be a more complex than having a positive outlook.

In a four part series, we will explore feelings of bereavement, and ways in which one can cope from the perspective of; child bereavement; adult bereavement; losing a parent; losing a child; losing a partner.

Losing a loved one: A child’s perspective

Children are not always aware of available and willing individuals to listen and help.

A grieving child may not even have the vocabulary to articulate the pain they’re enduring due to loss, therefore being aware of the signs that a child in your life is grieving can aid parents, teachers and caregivers to provide the compassion and support that a child needs.

One of the cornerstones of a healthy childhood is stability and loss inevitably brings with it uncertainty as well as pain.

In an article on childhood grief, Dr. Susan Thomas explains “Kids are masters at being able to distract themselves and focus on other things, but when something happens, all of the emotion they’ve been pushing away comes back. This coping mechanism allows them to handle the intensity of the experience.”

A child’s ability to appear to be doing well can mask this coping strategy. For children, the expression of grief can be more subtle and difficult to detect compared to adults.

Holding this information is key when dealing with a grieving child.  

If they appear to be adjusting well and coping with everyday tasks, it is very likely that that they are utilising denial as a coping mechanism.

 It is very important to remember that this is both perfectly normal and perfectly healthy.

However, what is also perfectly healthy is the explosion of rage or fear that a seemingly small event can trigger in a grieving child.  

When anyone utilises denial as a coping mechanism, they have not banished the negative or difficult emotion permanently.

Rather, they are delaying dealing with it because of the magnitude of the feeling and their fear of being overwhelmed by it.

 This is particularly true when dealing with a traumatised child. This means that this feeling will erupt when triggered by an event that seems disproportionate to the emotional response that it illicits.

When dealing with a grieving child, it is really important to hold this piece for them.  

When they have a disproportionate response, remember that this is the chance for their grief to receive expression.

Even if we are personally triggered by behaviour that seems to defy the rules of polite society, it is really important that the grieving child be allowed to express their pent up anger, fear and pain.

 The most important support that we can offer is acceptance. This sometimes involves new learning for an adult dealing with a grieving child. We have to learn to engage with their behaviour as a symptom of their grief and balance this with our need to have social rules and acceptable behaviour adhered to.

For example, a child who has experienced grief might regress in terms of their toilet habits.  

Having a 10 year old soil themselves and then hide it might seem like a behavioural issue and ordinarily illicit a disciplinary response from an adult.

Reframed within the context of grief, the child is openly expressing that they are hurt and in pain.

Creating a safe and secure space for the child and allowing their behaviour to open a conversation about how they are feeling can give the child the sense that they are not wrong, bad or difficult.  

Rather, they are hurt, and their hurt has space within the family or school environment. Viewing a difficult behaviour as a welcome expression of pain means that the child has security at this difficult time and does not alienate their grief because of the difficult behaviours that it causes them to engage in.

It is also worth noting that for a child, talking might not be the most appropriate means of expression.  Play therapy, art therapy and drama therapy might work better for a child in this circumstance.

By Lorraine Hackett