Childhood Grief and Impact
To know and experience the depths of a grieving heart is a delicate, sacred space. Grief is treacherous yet beautiful, painful yet honoring, creative yet multifaceted. As mentioned in my previous post Experiencing the Gravity of Grief for Good, grief refers to our natural internal response and external outworking to any kind of loss (1). It encompasses different kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which may feel uncomfortable. The unfamiliarity of the grief experience can lead one to ask, “How can I overcome this?” According to Harris and Winokuer (1), “grief is not a form of pathology or something to be cured…loss, change, and death are all universal human experiences, and each one of us will become intimately acquainted with the grieving process at many points throughout our lives” (1, p. 15) even at a very young age. Many of us are thrust into some type of grieving process during childhood and this article offers insight to adults who are helping a child in their life with this painful experience.
Kids are unbelievably resilient, adventurous, playful, and smart. While they may not fully understand the complexities and situations around them, the “impact of the loss will be interpreted from their limited experiences and understandings… and it will affect them for many years to come” (3, p. 8). Thus, it is important for one to know the universal realities for bereaved children to better understand and support kids walking through their unique grief journey.
Universal Realities for Bereaved Kids:
- Grief is personal
Have you ever noticed how people respond differently to the same kind of loss? Just as children are designed uniquely and have different preferences on how to engage with the world, their grief is also unique and personal (3). Grief can oftentimes be described in stages described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. It is true that one may experience each of these stages throughout the grieving process, and many people can identify with each stage she describes. However, grief tends to be more fluid than Ross’ natural stage-progression. It takes its own course and belongs to the individual person that is grieving (3). Thus, it is important for us to see a child’s grief through their own lens as it uniquely unfolds at a pace that is comfortable for them.
2. Grief is transitional
Whether loss consists of the passing of a loved one, missing time with an old friend, a parent who has left home, an old house full of memories, or a freedom that no longer exists, the person grieving learns to transition from what once existed to what is now gone during the grief process. The Dual Model of Bereavement suggests that one’s experience with grief oscillates between the past (i.e., the time before the loss) and the present or future (i.e., a life adjusting after the loss). When a loss occurs, children will carry that grief throughout their lives. Thus, grief support by loved ones and professionals provides space for children to “explore the changes that grief is ringing into their reality” (3, p. 7). Discussing these changes and normalizing the grief experience can be a powerful catalyst to the child’s healing journey.
3. Grief can be silent and unseen
It is easy to assume that children are not grieving if they are not outwardly expressing their emotions or showing signs of distress. According to McNiel & Gabbay (3), “grief is an experience that often lacks language and can at times (particularly for children), be challenging to express” (p. 7). Remember, grief is experienced according to one’s own personality, attachment style, and relationship with what was lost. When invited in, we as adults, parents, and professionals have the opportunity to become an intentional learner of the child’s grief, allowing it to unfold on a timetable that works best for them (2).
4. Grief is a shared experience
Lastly, while grief is a unique and personal journey, it is certainly not meant to be experienced alone. It is a shared experience within the family unit and community. A child’s worldview is shaped by his or her society and culture. This worldview provides a framework as to what is loss or death, how to honor what has been lost, and what it looks like to grieve (3).
Not only does a child’s worldview impact their grief, but according to Bowlby’s studies of attachment, Harris and Winokuer (1) state, “attachment plays a foundational part in our experience of grief… bereavement [is] a time when attachment needs are intensified.” It is vital for a child to be connected to healthy, secure and supportive attachment figures (e.g., loved ones and caregivers) during their unique grief journey.
Understanding the universal realities of bereaved kids provides an opportunity to gently come alongside a child in his or her grief. According to Levine (2), “having a safe place to work through the emotional memories to grieve, release pain, and celebrate life together can lighten a heavy load” (p. 374). Whether that space is in the counseling room or in your home, there is a beauty in offering the gift of presence to a grieving child.
- Harris, D., & Winokuer, H. R. (2021). Principles and practice of Grief Counseling. Springer
Publishing Company, LLC.
2. Levine, P. A., & Kline, M. (2008). Trauma-proofing your kids: A parents’ guide for instilling joy, confidence, and resilience. North Atlantic Books.
3. McNiel, A., & Gabbay, P. (2018). Understanding and supporting bereaved children: A practical guide for professionals. Springer Publishing Company, LLC.