"I miss Pop-pop," the little boy said out of the blue while he stared out onto a snow covered yard. His mother was a bit startled by the statement as her son's grandfather had died six months ago and the little boy had not mentioned him for a couple of months. She thought that her son had moved on but then remembered that her son and his grandfather used to go sledding together.
Grief over the loss of a loved one is something everyone eventually experiences and yet very few feel comfortable discussing. Parents have a particular challenge when it comes to childhood grief. Children do not have the same ability to understand death that adults do nor do they have adults' ability to cope with the loss in the same way.
Due to these differences, parents naturally want to shield children from the full impact of the loss. The temptation is to use euphemisms to discuss the death like the loved one has "gone to sleep" or "has gone away". However, children take such statements literally and may become afraid of bedtime or not want to travel. It is best to be direct with children when someone has died and to wait for their questions. Children will help parents know how much detail they need through the questions they ask. Parents do not need to go into exhaustive detail about the death as that can overwhelm children.
Young children will not understand that death is permanent and may believe they have the power to bring the dead person back by doing their chores or completing their homework. Older children understand the permanence of death but are likely to have other questions. Parents will need to help clarify what death means and answer questions as they come up.
Once children understand that a person has died and is gone, their grieving process will start. Children react in a variety of ways to death. Some will feel sad, display anger, and want to talk about it while other children will not want to talk and express their grief through play and art. Children's grief reactions will be stronger at first and then diminish to a degree as time goes by.
However, grief and the grieving process has no time limit. Parents and other adults should allow children to express their grief when they are feeling it as presented in the scenario at the beginning of this article. In addition, parents should feel comfortable talking about the person who died in front of the children. This models that it is okay to talk about the person and gives the message to children that others are also going through the sense of loss that they feel.
Grief can pop up throughout the rest of children's lives as they reach various milestones. For example, they may graduate from college and think back to how their loved one always pushed them to do well academically. Since grief continues to have an impact long after the initial death, it is important for parents and adults to recognize that it is an on-going issue for children.
Last week was Children's Grief Awareness Day which is always the third Tuesday in November, right before Thanksgiving. Its purpose is to bring attention to the fact that support can make all the difference in the life of a grieving child. It just takes parents and adults acknowledging the grief and to be willing to talk about it with children.
Dan Florell, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University and has a private practice, MindPsi (www.mindpsi.net). Praveena Salins, M.D., is a pediatrician at Madison Pediatric Associates (www.madisonpeds.com).