Grief and Loss in Children & Adolescents
We live in a death-phobic society. It teaches us to avoid all thoughts of dying. Even though movies and video games are filled with images of death, there is still a lack of authentic conversation about death. There is little tolerance for grief over time. People are often encouraged to move around grief instead of through grief. The result is that many people either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means.
Often, there is no time to grieve or mourn; rather children and adolescents hear such messages as "carry on", "keep your chin up", "she is in a better place", "be a brave little soldier" or "you just need to let go". With little recognition of the normal pain of grief, people may begin to think their thoughts and feelings are abnormal.
In a society where people average only three days off from work to mourn a relative, how can we expect children and adolescents to work through their losses? Also, if topics as important as death are off-limits, then "minor losses" such as a breakup or a move to a different town will be treated as unimportant or insignificant. These "minor losses", however, can be a source of pain for our children and adolescents.
The idea that children and adolescents cannot grieve or understand death and loss is simply not true. Children do feel grief and experience loss in profound ways. Research even indicates that a child's core personality is affected by any loss during the early months of life. Children understand death but not in the way that adults do. For example, children can handle strong emotions for only short amounts of time, and then they will put their grief aside. They may be very upset yet soon afterward play with toys as though nothing was wrong. This can be confusing to parents and may lead them to think their children are doing just fine, when they are not.
I have repeatedly heard adults say to children "don't feel bad". It's unreasonable to think that someone telling you not to feel bad would actually alter the way you feel. Imagine what it is like for a child to trust the adults and tell the truth about their feelings, only to be told not to feel that way.
Our initial reaction as adults is often to want to eliminate the pain that children are experiencing. But at the same time that adults are telling children not to feel bad, they may add to their confusion by also sending the message that they are supposed to feel bad. There are certain expected responses to grief in our society. One is that a person should feel sad after experiencing a loss, when in reality a person may feel nothing after experiencing a loss. Very often children need reassurance that it is okay to feel nothing, it is okay to not feel bad.
Often, one of the adults' strategies in responding to loss felt by their children is to try to replace the lost object. The most common example is the parent who responds to the death of a pet by immediately buying their child another pet. This strategy is flawed - it doesn't allow the child to take in and understand the loss and go through the morning process. Losing a pet is a learning experience for kids. It lets them come to the understanding that all things die, and it allows us to model healthy grief. Also this strategy minimizes the child's experience by assuming the object or pet is replaceable.
Therapists have an opportunity to play an important role in assisting parents and other adults in understanding the way grief and loss are manifested in children and adolescents, helping them provide comfort and support to their children. At times of loss, parents do not have to handle all of their children’s needs on their own. There is help available. Because parents are often dealing with their own powerful grief, it’s especially important for families to reach out for support.