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THE 4 STEPS FOR GRIEVING CHILDREN

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Thanatology. The study of death, dying and bereavement. Such a heavy topic. In a population with children, the topic can be so much more complex. So let's talk more about grief and grieving, specifically with children, and how to promote adaptive coping skills and coping steps for grieving children.

Mom comforting child

We must understand that grief is a normal adaptive response to death and departure of a loved one, and children do grieve differently than adults. Likewise, we use a framework of 4 adaptive tasks of grief when encountering a child who is grieving.

  1. Re-establish Security and Safety. Providing a sense of security creates a safe environment to cope in the healthiest way possible. In grief, children may experience a variety of mood fluctuations and feelings and need emotional security to process and make sense of them. Normalizing depressed, guilty, anxious or angry feelings for the surviving loved one is of primary importance. Catharsis of emotions (the process of releasing emotional connections therein providing relief from repressed and unexpressed emotions) is very important when helping kids cope. Oftentimes, children do not know what they are feeling and engage behaviors to communicate as opposed to verbal skills. As parents and guides, we must help navigate and explore their emotional world, which can be scary, uncertain and confusing. It is important we help children understand emotions associated with loss, such as feelings of emptiness, loss, anger, sadness, confusion, disconnection, loneliness and many other feelings that arise with the death of a loved one.

  2. Restore Routines. We know that when children have a sense of predictability and routine, they thrive. Domains of family dynamics include rituals that ensure they can feel a sense of control and understanding. If there is a change in the routine, narrate that for the child, and prepare them for the change. Communication about change can impact them in a positive way and help promote the idea their caregiver is tuned in to their needs, wants and desires. If you are unable to provide it as a caregiver, rely on your support system for the sense of stability. We want to reinforce the idea that it is important to grieve the loved one, and at the same time help the child understand there are roles and responsibilities with life that must go on.

  3. Affirming and Maintaining Boundaries. Children express how they are feeling in divergent ways. This can come down to personality and developmental age (Childmind.org). Maintain boundaries and expectations for the child, even if things occur like changes in sleeping, eating, social withdrawal, behavioral outbursts or increased risk-taking. Create and maintain expectations to let them know the environment is static (unchanging) in the time of a dynamic crisis. This allows them to find comfort in the familiar. It is important to allow them to grieve in their own way as there is no “right” way to grieve --encourage this point, especially with teens. Restricting this choice could lead to further rebellion.

  4. Adapting to New Roles. When a death occurs, there may be a profound disruption because of the loss, and a change in one aspect affects all others. As the loss is navigated, share and speak about the impact that the change with the loss has had on the dynamics of life and family structure. Role shifts may include grandparents becoming the parent, the parent may be a single parent, or it may mean that holidays can no longer occur at Grandma’s. Children don’t often understand the loved one won’t be returning or the role shift. Verbalizing the change and modeling new role relationships, in addition to talking about the person who died, is helpful.

Many people are unsure and ask “What can I do?” when a loved one dies. By following the 4 adaptive tasks, you'll be able to guide children into their own experience of bereavement and mourning. We can become partners in the grief process and create new, supportive ways to deal with death. Over time, with the help of personally meaningful cognitive reappraisals and genuine support from close, caring others, most are able to rebuild their world (Janoff-Bulman, 1992).


MORE RESOURCES


Because Kids Grieve. Located in the Magic Valley with support groups, day camps, and several other events and activities to support grieving families. www.becausekidsgrieve.org


Grief.com. A resource dedicated to help everyone deal with the often unknown terrain that comes along with all kinds of grief. Through education, information and other helpful resources, they hope to make the challenging road of grief a little easier. www.grief.com


What’s Your Grief. A place for sharing, support, resources and more. Its goal is to create a community that provides hope, support, and education to anyone wishing to understand the complicated experience of life after loss. The website includes a page of resources for talking about grief. https://whatsyourgrief.com/


Cerebral Palsy Guide. Children with special needs and the parents of, may also have feelings of grief while navigating complex differences and implementing adaptations. It’s imperative that parents educate themselves as much as possible to improve the quality of life of their children. This website includes a guide that walks parents through the different education options available to their children. https://www.cerebralpalsyguide.com/community/special-education/



SOURCES


About the Author: Kathy Couch a Certified Thanatologist, studying death, dying and bereavement and has spent a majority of her career focusing on children’s grief and bereavement.


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