Approaching a grieving person is tremendously difficult, especially when that person is a child. It can seem impossible to identify where to start. As a rule, effective grief-counselling is modelled around three pillars:
1) Identification of feelings. When someone is in the middle of suffering, they often feel confused and emotionally overwhelmed. The first step is to help them name and understand those different feelings.
2) Learning alternate coping strategies. Our natural path to dealing with pain is to seek some form of comfort (consciously or unconsciously). It’s important to help people choose healthy methods that will let them move forward.
3) Developing support networks. People were made for community and relationships. There are some things that we can’t go through alone, even if we’ve suffered alone thus far. We need to have people around us that can understand what we’re going through, and who have a heart to help.
Helping Children With Grief
It’s important to understand that there is no single right or normal way to deal with grief. Adults tend to withdraw, while children, depending on their age, may “act out” their reactions. Regardless of the type of loss, significant or minor, we must allow people to express their pain without minimizing it. We have to give them permission and encouragement to feel and react in the way that they feel they need to, however “dramatic” it may seem.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a well known grief educator, has identified twelve “dimensions” of grief that bereaved children may experience:
- Apparent Lack of Feeling
- Physiological Changes
- Regression Behavior
- “Big Man” or “Big Woman” Syndrome
- Disorganization & Panic
- Explosive Emotions
- Acting Out Behaviors
- Guilt and Self Blame
- Loss & Loneliness
This list is not all-inclusive, nor mutually exclusive. These grief responses occur in no specific order or progression. Each child’s responses are unique to them.
A child’s reaction to loss will often depend on the following:
- Their emotional understanding of death, divorce, or other types of loss.
- Their level of general emotional development.
- Their relationship to the lost person(s).
- The disruption to their environment caused by the loss.
- Their opportunities to express feelings.
As adults, we should never assume that we know how children feel after a loss, or that any group of children will understand death in the same way. We should also be extremely careful to never determine when a child is finished grieving.
To aid them through the healing journey, we need to model the following qualities: acceptance, affection, and understanding.
Acceptance means allowing them to be hurting and imperfect as they process very painful emotions.
Affection means taking the time to show closeness and care, especially through non-verbal communication.
Understanding means asking them to explain how they feel and really listening (as opposed to telling them what they ought to feel).