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How a grieving child feels

When someone loved dies, children express themselves in a variety of ways. Caring adults need to be aware of these forms of expression and recognize them as natural ways children work through their grief. Twelve dimensions of grief commonly experienced by grieving children are listed below. This list is not all-inclusive nor mutually exclusive. These grief responses occur in no specific order of progression. Each child's responses are uniquely different.

Dimensions of Childhood Grief

  1. Apparent lack of feelings

  2. Acting-out behavior

  3. Physiological changes

  4. Fear

  5. Regressive behavior

  6. Guilt and self-blame

  7. "Big-Man" or "Big-Woman" syndrome

  8. Disorganization and panic

  9. Loss and loneliness

  10. Explosive emotions

  11. Reconciliation

  12. Apparent lack of feelings

Children often respond to the death of someone loved with emotional shock and an apparent lack of feelings. They can be playing in the yard only hours or even minutes after learning of the death. Rather than being inappropriate, this behavior is a protective mechanism and nature's way of caring for chilldren. It allows them to detach themselves from the pain in the only way they can.

Adults are often confused by this apparent indifference.

However, they should recognize it as a child's way of naturally pushing away, at least temporarily, the knowledge that a loved one has died. Adults at this time must be supportive and accept this behavior as a necessary step toward healing.

Adults can provide opportunities for children to mourn in healthy ways, but should never force them to feel something before they are ready for the pain that precedes healing. Just as an adult puts a Band-Aid on a child's physical wound, adults must respect a child's need to temporarily cover up emotional wounds.

Regressive Behavior

Under the normal stress of grief, children often return to a sense of protection and security they experienced at earlier times in their lives. This need is manifested in different ways: a desire to be rocked or nursed; difficulty in being separated from parents; or requests for parents to do simple tasks, such as tying shoes, that children could previously do for themselves. They may also have difficulty in working independently at school. During this time, a child might also need constant individual attention, be suddenly afraid of the dark, or talk "baby talk." Regressive behaviors in bereaved children are usually temporary. If children are allowed the freedom to return to simpler, safer times, they will usually emerge from their mourning more competent. 

Children who are not allowed to regress, however, sometimes bury the pain within themselves.

Regression can happen at any time in the grief experience, but it usually occurs immediately following the death. The efforts of parents and other adults at this time should include providing children a supportive presence that permits them to share their conflicting thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.

"Big-Man" or "Big-Woman" Syndrome

The opposite of regressive behavior among grieving children is the "Big-Man" or "Big-Woman" syndrome. This is apparent when a child attempts to grow up quickly and exhibits adult behavior in an effort to replace the person who has died. This forced maturity can be the result of simply carrying out the instructions of respected adults: “You’ll now have to be the man (or woman) of the house.”

Although well-intentioned, adults who deliver this message are unaware of its potentially damaging impact. Sometimes a child unconsciously adopts this syndrome as a symbolic means of trying to keep the one who has died alive. By filling the loved one's role, a child doesn't have to acknowledge the full effect of the loss on his or her life. "Big-Man" or "Big-Woman" behavior in children is sometimes reinforced by grieving adults who find it easier to respond to children at this inappropriate level. In its extreme form, a child literally serves as a replacement for a dead spouse. When this occurs, self-identity and self-esteem are often severely damaged.

Adults can take a major step toward preventing forced maturity in grieving children. They can do this by preventing other adults from handing out such trite advice as "You'll have to take care of your mother now that your dad is gone." This kind of comment only results in the development of frustrated or depressed children who are not allowed to grieve in ways appropriate to their ages.

Explosive Expressions

This dimension of grief is often the most upsetting for adults.

Parents and others are uncertain how to respond to expressions of complex emotion such as anger, blame, hatred, terror, resentment, rage, and jealousy.

Behind these explosive emotions, however, are a child's more primary feelings of pain, helplessness, frustration, fear, and hurt caused by the death of someone loved. Anger and other related emotions are natural, intelligent responses by a child in an effort to restore the valued relationship that has been lost.

A child's anger and rage may be directed toward anyone: the surviving parent, a teacher, friends, God, or the world in general. The fact that the dead person does not come back, despite the explosive emotions, is part of the reality-testing children need for the eventual healing process. Although confusing for adults, a child's ability to show explosive emotions is healthy. It provides a means of temporarily protesting the painful reality of the loss. Children who either do not give themselves permission to protest, or don't receive permission from others, may turn their anger inward. The result is often low self-esteem, depression, chronic feelings of guilt, and physical complaints.

The major role of the caring adult during periods of explosive emotions is to be a supportive stabilizer. Be understanding.

Encourage and validate these emotions without judging, retaliating, or arguing. Allow children to let go of pent-up emotions. Healthy grief requires that we express, not repress, these feelings in a safe and loving environment.

Acting Out Behavior

Many children will express the pain of grief through acting-out behavior. After experiencing the death of someone loved, children may have temper outbursts, become unusually loud, initiate fights, defy authority, or simply rebel against everyone. Sometimes grades will drop, or the child will assume a general I-don't-care attitude. Older children may talk about running away from home. For adults, understanding and appropriately responding to this acting-out behavior is often difficult. To establish a helping-healing relationship with children who are demonstrating this dimension of grief, adults need to first examine what causes it. Some of the factors that influence acting-out in grieving children are:

Feelings of insecurity. Grieving children naturally experience a sense of insecurity following the death of someone loved.

In contrast, acted-out feelings unconsciously provide them with a sense of strength, control, and power.

Feeling of abandonment. When someone loved dies, children sometimes feel that the person has abandoned them.

Consequently, they feel unloved; their self-esteem may be low. Acting-out behavior creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: "See, nobody loves me."

A desire to provoke punishment. Unconsciously, grieving children may feel so guilty when someone loved dies that they want to be punished for the death. Acting-out behavior elicits that punishment. The acting-out behavior may even be directed toward trying to get the person who died to come back.

The rationale: "If I'm bad, Dad will have to come back and make me behave."

A desire to externalize feelings of grief. Acting-out behavior is often demonstrated in children who have been grieving within themselves but not sharing this grief outwardly. Some adults mistakenly assume that children are too young to need to talk out thoughts and feelings about grief. The result is that many children grieve but do not mourn. Acting-out is, consequently, a way of saying, "I hurt, too."

For parents and other adults, the key to responding to acting-out behavior is to allow children to teach us what their needs are. By doing so, adults can help children heal the wounds resulting from the death.

Loss and Loneliness

This dimension, feelings of loss and loneliness, is often the most difficult for grieving children. It never takes place all at once and may continue for months or years after the death.

Usually, these feelings begin when a child finally realizes that the person who has died is never coming back.

As children struggle to come to terms with the finality of the death, they may become depressed. This condition is a natural response to their loss. During this time, children may demonstrate a lack of interest in themselves or others, a change in appetite and sleeping patterns, nervousness, an inability to enjoy life, and low self-esteem. Children are particularly vulnerable at this time. They may become extremely dependent on others and sometimes on someone who reminds them of the person who has died. 

Caring adults play an important role in helping children grow through this dimension of grief. By communicating in both words and touch, adults can assure children they are not alone in their grief and help them move toward encountering life, living, and loving once again.

Reconciliation: the Final Dimension

Reconciliation is the final dimension of healthy grief. While children never get over their grief, they become reconciled to it. At this point, children recognize life will be different without the presence of the person who died, yet they have a renewed sense of energy and confidence and want to become involved in the activities of life once again.

Adults should never prescribe specific timetables to reach reconciliation. A child will proceed at his or her own pace, depending on age, personality, social environment, and relationship to the person who has died. Changes often noted during a child's reconciliation process include:

• A return to stable eating and sleeping patterns

• A renewed sense of well-being

• A subjective sense of release from the person who has died

• An increase in thinking and judgment capabilities

• An increased ability to enjoy life's experiences

• A recognition of the finality of the death

• An establishment of new and healthy relationships

Perhaps the most important gain in the reconciliation process is the child's ability to successfully cope with the loss. The child has come to terms with grief and is ready to get on with the business of living. And while the sense of loss may reoccur, it's softer; the pangs of grief will be less frequent and less severe.

Even when children reach reconciliation, "griefbursts" may occur on and off for years. A griefburst is a sudden, sharp feeling of grief and loss that seems to come out of nowhere.

During a griefburst, a child may feel an overwhelming sense of missing the person who has died. He may cry or sob and feel anxious. Griefbursts are normal and natural and are sometimes triggered by a specific holiday or event that reminds them of the person who has died.

Reconciliation can best be achieved with the assistance of helping-healing adults who allow children to move toward their grief, not away from it. Children need to know that grief is nothing to be ashamed of.

pps. 11-19. Excerpted from "A Child's View on Grief - A Guide for Parents, Teachers and Counselors" by permission of the author, Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt. Published by Companion Press. Copyright 1991. 

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