By Jennifer Kramer, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.
I once had a student say to me, “I thought death only happens to people when they get old.” What a world that would be, where everyone got to live long, happy lives.
The reality is that loss is very much part of life. Grief is an experience all people will have, and it is something we all must learn.
I think about my own life before the age of 18. I lost a great-grandmother at age six as well as our next-door neighbor. In middle school, my grandmother passed from cancer in my home. A friend my age passed away in high school in a car accident. As a school social worker, I realize these experiences shaped so much of how I help students handle loss. As much as we would like to shield kids from the heartbreak of grief, our goal should be to help them move through it.
Sometimes we forget that our children are exposed to the concept of death at a very young age. Many Disney movies center on the loss of an important family member: Coco, Encanto, Frozen, The Lion King, and Moana, just to name a few.
These movies all show different ways individuals and families heal after a loss. Watching these movies and starting conversations with your children about loss (even if your family hasn’t experienced this) can help them understand loss and be empathetic to others who may be experiencing feelings of grief.
We hear a lot about the stages of grief, but what are they? The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is no order in which a person should grieve. In fact, it is not uncommon for a person to be in one stage for a moment, move to another, and back again. Children go through the same stages of grief that adults do, but it may look different. It is not uncommon for a child to go from crying to playing in a matter of minutes.
Where children move through the same stages as adults, they will most likely express themselves in very different ways. The website verywellfamily.com discusses different ways a child may grieve, including new academic problems, anxiety, behavioral reactions, changes in play, clinginess, developmental regression, difficulty concentrating, feelings of abandonment, guilt, or sleeping problems.
Changes in play may look like action figures, dolls or stuffed animals dying during play and then coming back to life. Your child may also blame themselves for the death of the loved one. Young children can sense the feelings of their parents and may become more irritable, and slightly older elementary age children may revert to crawling or baby talk.
It is important to talk to children on their level. Answer the questions they ask, but don’t divulge too much information.
Be understanding that these behaviors are normal. Be supportive of your children. Show them love and give them the space and time to feel their feelings. It is also a good idea to ask for help if you feel you need it yourself.