Expressions of Grief among Children

An important thing to remember when talking to children about death is that the discussion must be geared to that child's specific developmental level, their cultural norm, and their capacity to understand the situation. Children will be observant to the reactions of the adults that they trust about the current death and tragedy. In fact, for younger children adult reactions will play an especially important role in shaping the child's perception of the situation.

Expressions of grief can vary among individuals.  It is important to note that children may display various expressions among the different stages of grief.  The range of expressions may be as follows:

• Emotional shock and at times an apparent lack of feelings, which serve to help the child detach from the pain of the moment; 

• Regressive (immature) behaviors, such as needing to be rocked or held, difficulty separating from parents or significant others, needing to sleep in parent’s bed or an apparent difficulty completing tasks well within the child’s ability level; 

• Explosive emotions and acting out behavior that reflect the child’s internal feelings of anger, terror, frustration and helplessness. Acting out may reflect insecurity and a way to seek control over a situation for which they have little or no control; 

• Asking the same questions over and over, not because they do not understand the facts, but rather because the information is so hard to believe or accept. Repeated questions can help listeners determine if the child is responding to misinformation or the real trauma of the event. 

It is very important to acknowledge all and every expression of grief that your child is experiencing.  Let them know that it is okay to have feelings of sadness when someone close to them passes away.  You may also want to have a discussion with your child as to where they think their loved one has gone.  Openly discussing grief helps the process of healing begin.

Depression symptoms in children and teens

Common symptoms of depression in children and teens are similar to those of adults, but there can be some differences.

  • In younger children, symptoms of depression may include sadness, irritability, clinginess, worry, aches and pains, refusing to go to school, or being underweight.
  • In teens, symptoms may include sadness, irritability, feeling negative and worthless, anger, poor performance or poor attendance at school, feeling misunderstood and extremely sensitive, using drugs or alcohol, eating or sleeping too much, self-harm, loss of interest in normal activities, and avoidance of social interaction.
  • Depression may occur with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


5 Stages of Grief 

Kübler-Ross originally developed this model based on her observations of people suffering from terminal illness. She later expanded her theory to apply to any form of catastrophic personal loss, such as the death of a loved one.

1. Denial

The first reaction to learning of terminal illness or death of a cherished loved one is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.

2. Anger

As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry.

Remember, grieving is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one “right” way to do it.

The doctor who diagnosed the illness and was unable to cure the disease might become a convenient target. Health professionals deal with death and dying every day. That does not make them immune to the suffering of their patients or to those who grieve for them.

Do not hesitate to ask your doctor to give you extra time or to explain just once more the details of your loved one’s illness. Arrange a special appointment or ask that he telephone you at the end of his day. Ask for clear answers to your questions regarding medical diagnosis and treatment. Understand the options available to you. Take your time.

3. Bargaining

The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control–

  • If only we had sought medical attention sooner…
  • If only we got a second opinion from another doctor…
  • If only we had tried to be a better person toward them…

Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.

4. Depression

Two types of depression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs and burial. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.

5. Acceptance

Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. Death may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. This is not a period of happiness and must be distinguished from depression.

Loved ones that are terminally ill or aging appear to go through a final period of withdrawal. This is by no means a suggestion that they are aware of their own impending death or such, only that physical decline may be sufficient to produce a similar response. Their behavior implies that it is natural to reach a stage at which social interaction is limited. The dignity and grace shown by our dying loved ones may well be their last gift to us.

Coping with loss is a ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience — nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.

 

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