“Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.”
— Alan Wolfelt
Often, children in the vortex of a deep family grief are overlooked. Adults don’t always realize that the death of a loved one can be as emotionally overwhelming for children as it is for adults. But children lack the maturity and reasoning abilities of adults to deal with their pain and confusion. As much as we try to protect children, they need help in managing their grief and understanding what death means. None of us are born with a mental imprint on how to cope with grief. It has to be learned and developed. Young children take things literally and see the world in black and white, not understanding the multitude shades of grey in the world of grief.
And as adults, the deepest griefs we felt as a child become intertwined with our current grief, especially if we haven’t resolved those earlier traumatic losses. The child inside us often comes flooding out and intensifies our grief when someone we love dies. Part of us turns into that child again, unable to be comforted.
My first experience with loss was age seven, when my little dog Peanut nudged open the screen door a sliver, ran down the steps and across the front yard of our Alabama home, to the street, where she was run over by a car. My mother had warned me many times about being careful to keep the latch on the hook so Peanut couldn’t get out.
I threw myself on the lawn and held her as I wailed. I was sure I wouldn’t live through the heartache and guilt and the endless string of days without my dog. My parents got me Peanut when my dad was sent to Vietnam. I missed my Dad so much and Peanut received all the love a little girl could give. Her death was the first one of my life, and it stunned me. I felt I was drifting in a sea of loss and guilt, blaming myself. I didn’t know how to express these complex feelings and to this day I can feel the tears from that little girl inside who still misses her Peanut.
“We often tend to ignore how much of a child
is still in all of us.”
— Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Twenty years later, when I was in therapy, I learned these feelings of guilt are common for children. They often think the death of someone they love is their fault, especially when adults don’t know how to talk with them about grief. When my dad left our family when I was ten, I felt I had done something wrong. If only I had been a better daughter, if only I had done this or that, all the if only’s I felt might have stopped him from leaving. I was too young to understand it wasn’t anyone’s fault but the PTSD my father suffered after the war.
This New York Times article, “Letting Children Share in Grief” reminds us just a few decades ago, children often didn’t even attend funerals – the thinking was to shelter them from the pain.
Children know more than we think
Children are great observers. When someone dies, or is sick, they overhear things and pick up much more than we know.
They are soaking it all in, but they need an adult perspective to make sense of what is happening. This terrific article in Psychology Today, “Talking with Children about Death,” by Marilyn Mendoza offers wonderful age appropriate advice for talking with your children.
“With good intentions, parents want to protect their children from pain. Yet death is a part of life that children do need to know about.”
— Marilyn Mendoza
Shielding our Children from the Truth
We want our children to live magical and pain free lives because as adults we know how much pain grief causes. Shielding them from the truth that death is a part of the experience of life – avoiding important family conversations, will make it harder for them to cope when something does happen. It’s easy for children’s own feelings to get drowned out by their caregiver’s pain and suffering.
The Life Cycle is Part of Life
This amazing book – The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children is great for adults and children, and helps us have to important conversations about the Life Cycle – how we are all interconnected inside of it. This book will speak to the child inside us who is grieving and to our children at the same time.
“Having important, age appropriate conversations with children about death is essential to them having a healthy life.”
Managing Grief is All About Community
This great TEDx talk is by Carly Woythaler-Runestad, the director of the Mourning Hope Grief Center.
She reminds us children are often the forgotten mourners. Because teachers aren’t trained to help grieving children and many adults don’t have the resources to handle their own grief. Her dream was to develop a community where nobody ever has to grieve alone, and I share that dream with her!
Family and Child Resources to Manage Grief
Hospice programs are including grief programs for children, and this video helps you listen to stories through the eyes of a child, showing how helpful it is to connect children and teens to services and groups of other children who understand what they are going through. Find resources for children and teens by state through The National Alliance For Grieving Children at Children Give.
Recommended Family Books
I found a book on grieving for children that I recommend for all adults too – The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffries. “Once there was a little girl whose life was filled with all the wonder of the world around her”….when the girl puts her heart in a bottle after loss occurs, she has to learn how to let the magic in and get her heart back, a theme for all of us who have forgotten the magic in life when faced with loss. I love this book.
Just a few weeks ago I recommended How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies to a friend who knew a teenager whose father just died. Dr. Therese Rando wrote it in 1988. It covers every aspect of grief, from the basic questions of what is grief, and what to expect, to the different kinds of grief experiences due to a death: the death of a parent, a child, a spouse, a sibling; to normalizing grief and loss in general. This is one of the books I recommend most often in my therapy practice. It’s for all members of a grieving family.
Another children’s book that is designed for all grievers is The Memory Box, a Book About Grief by Joanna Rowland. This comforting story allows the reader to imagine the loss of anyone they have loved – a friend, family member, even a pet.
Parents Need to Address Their Own Grief First
Parents often have the difficult challenge of managing their own grief and their child’s at the same time. It’s important parents receive support to learn the healthiest ways for the whole family to grieve together – be it the loss of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, or any family member. This wonderful article – Parenting While Grieving by Eleanor Haley reminds parents that “grief can trigger an onslaught of emotion, feeling and secondary loss which can impact our ability to parent with a cool, clear and even head”.
Helping a child cope with grief is a big reminder that we need empathy for the child inside of us who often feels abandoned when we lose someone we love.
When my husband died, the little girl inside that held the pain of my dog being killed in front of me, of losing my father to his mental illness, of my father dying suddenly of a heart attack when I was only twenty-four, of my grand-parents dying, was triggered. It impacted and intensified the trauma of Jim’s death. Some days I was so stuck in pain and anguish for my husband, I felt as if I was that skinny child with socks bunched up around her ankles, her face flooded from tears and her shoulders shaking in pain. The deepest grief I had felt as a child became mixed with my current grief as an adult.
In The Grace of Darkness, part of a chapter from my book, You Are Not Alone, I write about my grief being magnified from earlier losses.
“Many of us have other losses we may still be grieving, even if it’s from a very long time ago. A life-altering loss like losing someone you love can trigger the hurt and trauma from these older losses, impacting and magnifying our current grief. It can bring up many unresolved “wounds of the heart” and draw you even deeper into despair. This is something to be aware of and another reason to seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed.”
My therapist was crucial in helping me to understand this was part of what was happening. I wrote my book to help you become aware of these and many other challenging moments in the grief process.
In Rabbi Earl Grollman’s groundbreaking book written in 1967, Explaining Death to Children he writes of a school teacher who said “Before I can teach death to children, someone has to straighten me out.”
This is a reminder that we are all learning about grief together – we are all interconnected at every age. We can best help children grieve if we address our inner child who is grieving, too.
“We not only need to have a deep respect for children; but also a deep respect for the child in everyone.”
— C. Joy Bell C.
Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC, is an author and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she specializes in trauma, grief and loss. Her award-winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope combines her personal story of devastating loss with practical insights and simple suggestions for healing. Join her Facebook community, Grief to Gratitude, and follow her on Instagram.