When providing support to grieving children and teenagers, it is very important to understand their unique and special needs.
Helping Grieving Children
Grief author and educator Dr. John Canine provides the following thoughts to help you better understand a child’s grief:
Claudia Jewett in her book, “Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss,” discusses the stages of grief a child will go through after the death of a loved one. Keep in mind that developmental psychologist tell us a child begins to conceptualize about age seven; prior to that a child will respond to death in a “sensed” manner. In other words, the child will imitate the grief response of caregiving adults. That is why every adult should manifest healthy grief responses in front of a child.
Let’s take a look at Jewett’s stages:
- Shock - children will become very mechanical after a death. Much like a robot, just going through the emotions. They may sit and gaze into space punctuated by outbursts of crying and panic. Eventually they will accept.
- Alarm - children are about safety and security. When someone in their environment is missing, especially a protector, provider, or playmate, they feel less safe and secure. This may cause physical problems like sweating, dry mouth, fighting, immobilization, bowel and bladder relaxation. Sometimes they cannot sleep or they want to sleep with an adult.
- Disbelief - a child may refuse to believe the loved one is dead. They may close their eyes or put their hands over their ears – all of this points to disbelief. In the child’s disbelief there may be devaluation of the loved one. The child may say the person wasn’t that important to them anyway.
- Hyperactivity - this is an “acting out” of the child’s grief. By keeping busy the child doesn’t have to think or deal with the loss. The child will not want to be alone.
Children need to have as many details about the death that they are developmentally ready to hear. We need to be truthful with them and not use euphemisms (like grandfather “expired”). We need to give them a secure environment (like their bedroom) when we discuss the death with them. It is very important to let the child express his or her feelings through conversation, play, painting or drawing. For social support and the ability to recall in the future, it is important to take the child to the funeral and cemetery. Don’t be afraid to let the child tell others about the death. You will find out how much they really understand. And always be available to answer questions. Any feeling they express you should be able to validate.
To learn more about Dr. Canine’s work, go to: www.maximumlivingconsult.com
Helping Grieving Teenagers
Kelly Baltzell, M.A., CEO of Beyond Indigo, offers the following tools and advice to help you support a teenager who is grieving:
Death is a hard thing to face. In the western culture, such as the United States, there is very little information regarding death. Teenagers unfortunately tend to get overlooked when there is a death in the family. One of the many things a teen might have to figure out on his/her own is where to get help.
I have complied a list of concepts you could hand out to a teen giving suggestions to capture the attention of adults so that the teen feels that someone is listening. These are some things a teen should look for when asking for help from teachers, family, counselors and other adults in their life.
Getting Adults to Listen
- Look for an adult who is not afraid to talk about death and dying. Some adults have not thought about death and dying and what it means to them. They will be uncomfortable talking about death with you. To find someone that is okay about answering any questions you have, ask them upfront how they feel talking about death. Does it make them uncomfortable? Do you feel uncomfortable talking to them about death? If you do, you need to find someone that you are very comfortable with, no matter what the subject. Ask the adult what their personal beliefs are about what happens when you die. See if their beliefs feel okay to you.
- Find an adult who can be available for you. This could be a teacher, a school counselor, a therapist, your priest/minister or an adult friend. Make sure he/she can be there for you when you need someone to talk to about your loss. You will not get the support you need if people are not around when you need them, or if they are unavailable by phone or e-mail.
- Watch for an adult who is not afraid of emotions. Adults are not perfect. They have issues they struggle with as well. Not all adults are comfortable with emotions. Make sure the person you talk to doesn’t freak out when you start to cry. (Because you will cry!) You need to be able to express your feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness, etc. and not be told to stuff the feelings back inside of you, or to “be brave.”
- Silence is okay. How many times have you felt uncomfortable when there is just silence between you and another person? Many of us do not like this feeling. Silence is okay. You might not even realize you have stopped talking sometimes. Find an adult who doesn’t mind the silence. While grieving, it is okay to stop and think about what you are feeling.
- Think about an adult or adults who make you feel better. Some people really bring us down just because of who they are. Make sure the adult(s) that you have in your life make you feel better about yourself-- not make you feel worse, or guilty. It is okay to have times when you feel better while you are grieving. Do not feel guilty if you do not feel horrible all the time. It is okay to grieve and still have fun times.
- Let adults know what days are going to be hard for you. If you let a teacher or counselor know that the anniversary of your loss is coming up, or a specifically difficult day is arriving, they can help you through this time. Perhaps they can help you to arrange to take a test the next week after that hard day. You will most likely be able concentrate better making your schedule more flexible. A teacher is not a mind reader but they usually want to help if you let them and show them the way.
- Include your parent or guardian in your grief, and to help you problem solve. Have your parent(s) or guardian meet your teacher(s), your school counselor, therapist, minster/priest or special adult friend. All the adults in your life are your support system. It is much easier if they know each other and can help give you support during your time of need. You may want to set some rules with your parent/guardian and the other adults in your life. For example, your conversations with adults other than your parent/guardian stay private unless you are a danger to yourself and need help. You will feel more comfortable and so will your parent(s)/guardian.
- Realize adults have your best interests at heart. Keep in mind that if you are hurting yourself, or going to hurt yourself, adults in your life will seek outside help to help you! They aren’t doing it to be mean, to ruin your life, to make you miserable etc. They are doing it because they care.
A good support system is important to help you heal from grief. You will not feel so alone and as if no one cares. Remember you may have to take some risks and talk to adults first to see if they can help you. It is okay not to stick with one adult if you are not getting your needs met. Just be honest with them that you don’t feel comfortable, or feel like you can get better help elsewhere for right now.
© Kelesan, Inc. Reprinted with Permission
To learn more about Kelly’s work, go to: www.grieving.com
Always remember, you are not alone. There are others who understand and are ready to help. The grief resources available to you will vary by community. Your NFDA funeral director is a great place to start to learn about support available in your area.