“Loss makes artists of us all as we weave new patterns in the fabric of our lives.”
-Greta W. Crosby
A Message From Our Program Director, Dr. Carolyn Taverner
One of the first things you recognize when you work with grieving children is that there are no “kid-sized” emotions. Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. What they lack is the vocabulary to explain what they are feeling in a way adults can understand. Children grieve in a manner and time that is most appropriate for them, and is typically out of sync with where adults are in their grief. Children can grieve intermittently for many years. Depending on their age, children may not manifest grief symptoms until years after a loss. When children’s grief symptoms do occur, many are behavioral. They may become aggressive or withdrawn; overly dependent and clingy; or mischievous and irritable. Grades may plummet or favorite activities may no longer hold their interest. This can happen immediately after or several months or years after a loss. This can be especially prevalent during the holidays when nothing feels right without their loved one and everyone’s emotions are heightened.
Children are as worried about you as you are about them. They bear witness to all the intense emotions grief brings to the adults in their lives and do not want to add to the sadness. They might make sure not to talk about the deceased in front of you, and may be the one holding your hand or being strong. This does not mean they are not grieving. Many will cry in private or turn to other means of expression to work through their emotions such as writing, art, or play. These can be wonderful ways to connect with your child and share memories – make an ornament in honor of your loved one; write a holiday card for them or involve the child in creating new traditions that include the memory of their loved one. The most important thing is to keep communication open but this can be more difficult than imagined. As adults we rarely know what to say to other grieving adults, and it is far worse when adults are trying to talk to children. Mostly, children want life to get back to normal and their reactions reflect this desire. Despite their different levels of understanding and unique reactions and coping skills, that children display at different ages, the best way to help a grieving child is to be there, and to know how it feels to lose someone or something you love and to recognize that in them.
There is no greater honor than being entrusted with a child’s story, for they do not give it lightly. When you can spare a few extra moments, or stop and answer the myriad of questions, or stand steadfast through the flood of emotions, you provide a voice to a population that we often fail to listen to as closely as we should. For with every little hand held, or tear dried, a difference is made. The smallest gestures mean the world to a grieving child. To be seen and recognized as a mourner is a powerful, life changing event.