When we contemplate of the grieving process, we tend to think of the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Many people's general understanding of these stages is that you move from one to another at a steady pace. You are supposed to start with 'denial' and end with 'acceptance'. Right? When my father passed away a couple of years ago, I do not remember feeling 'denial'. I certainly was not 'angry'. There was no 'bargaining'. I never became 'depressed'. I went straight to the last stage, 'acceptance'. Was there something wrong with me? Was I broken? Did I not really love him? None of those things is true. I was surprised, because his passing was not expected. I was sad, because he was a huge part of my life and I was going to miss him. However, in general, I was at peace with the event of his passing. David B. Feldman, PhD, stated in a 2017 article for Psychology Today "when any of us loses someone we love, we may find that we fit the stages precisely as Kubler-Ross outlined, or we may skip all but one. We may race through them or drag our feet all the way to acceptance. We may even repeat or add stages that Kubler-Ross never dreamed of. In fact, the actual grief process looks a lot less like a neat set of stages and a lot more like a roller coaster of emotions".
It was interesting to observe my 3-year old grandson, Caeleb's reaction to this event. During the next few weeks, whenever we would drive past the hospital where my father passed away, Caeleb would point at the hospital and say, "That's heaven. Your dad is dead". It really impressed me that he was thinking about this event and attempting to organize it. I would try to clarify that not all people who go to the hospital die and that hospitals help people get well. I started to wonder about how children process grief and the differences between a child's journey through loss and an adult's. Do children actually grieve? What do they really feel? What do they understand?
According to Fran King, an Educational Consultant and Grief Therapist, children can be lost and ignored in the whole grief process. It may appear to the adults around them that they are "just fine". Children may sometimes want to protect their parents and other family members from further pain, so they frequently hide their strong feelings. She describes them as "forgotten mourners".
Not only do children grieve, they grieve in different ways or express their grief differently than adults. According to Susan Thomas, LCSW-R FT, program director for the Center for H.O.P.E. at Cohen's children's Medical Center of New York, "Kid's often grieve in spurts because they can't seem to tolerate grief for long periods of time. "She goes on to explain, "A child may scrape her knee and say, 'I wish Daddy were here.If he were here this wouldn't have happened. 'Kids are masters at being able to distract themselves and focus on other things, but when something happens, all of the emotion they've been pushing away comes back. "This coping mechanism, Thomas says, allows them to "handle the intensity of the experience. "In other words, for adults, grief may be a giant buffet of emotions, but for kids, it is more like tiny intermittent snacks.Watch this short video created by Sesame Street called Helping Kids Grieve.
Understanding that children have strong feelings and emotions that may go unnoticed is the first step in helping a child through grief. Adults play an important role in helping children mourn. Be honest with your child, include them in family events/rituals (if they are comfortable with them), do not force the expression of feelings in your child, but be available to comfort them when needed.
For more information about the grieving child go to www.dougy.org. You can also look for these titles on Amazon or at your local library: The Next Place by Warren Hanson, Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids, 100 Practical Ideas by Alan Wolfelt, Ph. D, and When Families Grieve: A Sesame Street Project which includes video clips from the DVD When Families Grieve, a children's storybook and caregiver guide. Download here free: http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/grief
"The greatest gift you can give your children is not protection from change, loss, pain or stress, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all that life has to offer them."-Dr. Wendy Harpham