Grieving is a very personal experience and many of us will find that we deal with grief in very different ways. This of course, is the same for children.
If a family has suffered the loss of a family member, friend or even a beloved pet, it is important that parents allow their children to grieve in their individual ways. Some will be overt in their grief, whilst others may appear as if nothing has changed. What is most important for any person who is grieving, is to have that grief acknowledged, and for them to be provided with a safe environment to deal with their emotions in a way that best meets their needs.
In the past, children were often shielded from being involved in a families grieving process, and this I believe must only have left them feeling fearful, confused and isolated. Children instead should be allowed to see your grief and display their own, to hear your cries and cry their own tears. They must also however, be witness to your ability to continue to function and take part in daily activities, so that they too can know that is ok for them to return to their games and play. They need to see that whilst you are devastated by an event, you still have the ability to pick yourself up. They need to see that there is no stop/start to grieving. There will be times when you are down, there will be times when you are ok, and that these emotions will continue to fluctuate for some time.
When my daughter died I was at first concerned about the effect on my 7 year old at the time, as he would often ask me to lie with him at night. His questions and attempts to try and make sense of the seemingly unexplainable would often leave us both crying ourselves to sleep. Was I putting too much of my own pain on to his tiny little shoulders? Should I have tried to shield him more from the enormity of this whole experience? On reflection I began to realise that this was something that he needed to do as well. I am now confident in the knowledge that he only took on what he could handle. It was also important for us to be able to get up the next morning and talk about normal stuff, have a laugh, go about our daily tasks, and thus remind ourselves that despite finding ourselves in a place of desperate sadness, we also knew that those times wouldn’t last forever. They will return, and we will find ourselves there again, but they will also be shelved, hidden somewhere far enough away to enable us to go on and enjoy our everyday living.
So when your children are mourning the loss of someone or something, remember that acknowledging that loss is the key for them and be guided by them as to how much they are able to take on. Age, development and personality all play a large part in how children respond to grief. Some may mourn fiercely and loudly and be ruled by these emotions of grief. Others may take much longer to process the emotions and you may find they come out later, at often unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Provide open communication and a safe environment, so that in whatever time frame they have and whatever process they endure, they will know that there will always be an opportunity for them to be heard and for their grief to be acknowledged.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break. ” ~ William Shakespeare
Stay tuned for later posts when I will look at some of the different ways children respond to grief, and how you as a parent can help support them through their journey.