By Lora Kingsley, MA, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Marci Stiles, MA, LPC-S, NBCC
November 21 is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. Falling annually on the third Thursday in November, the purpose of this day is to raise awareness that children do experience grief and need special support when they are grieving. The following myths exemplify how many people view children’s grief. Helping children process grief in a healthy way will allow for their healing and emotional growth.
Myth #1: If a child appears happy and laughing, they are fine and not grieving.
Children experience grief differently from adults. They tend to move in and out of intense grieving and apparent normalcy. It may be confusing or shocking to see a child who has experienced a recent loss playing happily with friends, but this is normal and not an indication that the child is not grieving. Many children hide their negative emotions when they see their parents or other loved ones grieving openly and avoid doing what they perceive as further upsetting the adult. Negative emotions are scary, but these emotions need to be addressed and expressed in order to heal.
Myth #2: It’s best not to talk about the loss or the loved one who has died to avoid upsetting the child.
Grief does not go away because it’s not talked about. Avoiding grief, trying to keep the loss “off your mind” with distractions and keeping your feelings inside are not healthy for adults or children. Unfortunately, our society does not encourage healthy grieving. Caregivers of children who are grieving should encourage the child to talk about the loss when and if they need to. Avoiding a child’s grief or discouraging their expression of negative feelings can lead to acting out behaviors and unresolved grief that can affect them later in life.
Myth #3: Children should not attend funerals or memorial services. They can’t handle it.
Funerals and memorial services are rituals that are meant to provide healing for the living. Children over the age of 2 or 3 should be given the opportunity to attend these services if they choose. Explain the purpose of the service and what to expect. Allow the child to share their fears about the service. Giving children an opportunity to have a say in planning the service or participating by sharing their memories during the service if they choose can be very beneficial.
Myth #4: When informing a child that a loved one has died, it is important to use gentle terms like “passed” or “sleeping” instead of “died” and to not give a lot of details.
Young children may not fully understand death and can interpret these words literally. They may believe that their loved one is sleeping and will wake up and come back. Children who have experienced a loss need to know that their loved one has died and is not coming back. While it may not be necessary to give every detail about the loss, it is important to let the child ask questions and to answer those questions as honestly as possible.
Myth #5: Being honest and explaining that the loved one has died is enough. The child will understand.
Although children are able to develop an understanding of death, they may have worries and concerns that should be addressed. Some children may feel responsible for the death somehow (“If I had cleaned up my room, Mommy wouldn’t have died.”). They may also fear for their own safety, fear their own death, or fear the imminent death of others. Children should be encouraged to share their worries and concerns about death. They should be assured that the loss was not their fault and that they will be safe. It is appropriate to explain that, while everyone dies eventually, they are expected to live for a long time.
Myth #6: If a child is having problems at school, regressing or acting aggressively, this is not related to the loss of a loved one.
Regressive behavior, such as having accidents after potty training or talking like a baby, are common reactions to the death of a loved one. Children may act out in school and show more anger and aggression. These are normal signs that the child is grieving. Giving the child an opportunity to express and process their grief will help these behaviors to eventually subside.
Myth #7: The death of a loved one is a family matter. Other people do not need to be involved.
Reaching out to others is necessary during the grieving process. It’s important to ask for help. Ask professionals how to help the child deal with grief. Ask friends or family members to spend time with the child to give them a “break” from grieving, especially if you are grieving yourself. Grief support groups, where children and adults can share their experiences with peers who are grieving, have been shown to be tremendously beneficial. Individual grief counseling may be necessary for a child who has experienced a particularly tragic death or whose grief-related behaviors are causing significant problems at school or home.
Myth #8: After a loved one dies, it is important to get back to normal, especially during the holidays and birthdays.
While maintaining structure and routine is important when children are grieving, they should be given the opportunity to acknowledge the loss of that person, especially during the holidays or birthdays. Ask the child how they would like to remember their loved one on special days. They may want to light a candle to symbolize that person, visit their grave, or tell happy stories about that person over holiday dinner.
Visit www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org for more information about children’s grief and how to raise awareness.
Call Lora Kingsley, MS, LPC-Intern at Positive Outlook Counseling for local resources for grieving adults or children at 972-733-3988.
Positive Outlook Counseling
Marci B. Stiles, MA, LPC-S, NBCC
16610 North Dallas Parkway, Ste 2100
Dallas TX, 75248
Positive Outlook Counseling services range from individual counseling to family therapy to marriage counseling services. Marci Stiles specializes in individual, family, marriage and troubled teen therapy.
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