“Grandpa, can you bring me the big ladder from the shed,” said his five-year-old granddaughter, “I want to climb to Heaven today to see my Daddy. I miss him.”
~ Five-year-old client whose Dad died in a workplace tragedy

Wouldn’t it be lovely if it could be true! In grief, children speak from their hearts and an unfiltered truth. This statement speaks to the strong feeling of yearning we all experience after the death of a loved one.

Grief is defined as the organic feelings and thoughts associated with loss and change. Children can be great teachers of the grief experience. One minute they are crying and the next playing happily with their friends. They are able to ‘dose’ themselves and naturally come in and out of grief. They may feel anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or experience thoughts like ‘Is daddy going to be okay?’; ‘Who will take me to hockey/dance?’; ‘Can I catch the disease?’; ‘Who will take care of me?’

Grief can also affect their bodies. They may have trouble falling asleep or eating, headaches or stomach aches or may not feel like doing things they used to do. Many of the thoughts and feelings are the same we experience as adults though they are certainly more confusing for children and therefore their responses are different. Listening to and observing a child is often our best way of learning how the tragedy is affecting them.

Though it is a natural feeling to want to protect children from bad news, research has shown that in the long run this can be more detrimental to their psychological development. Children are highly perceptive and notice nonverbal clues or changes in routine. From infancy they can sense a caregiver’s distress or mood. Be as forthright and clear as you can that is age appropriate. Avoid the use of euphemisms like ‘passed away’ or ‘lost’. When an occupational illness has been diagnosed or an injury has happened, be as honest as possible about the situation. If you don’t know the answer, let them know that, and that you will share the information when you receive it. Use true words like ‘died’, ‘workplace accident’ or ‘tragedy’. Find positives and strengths to share. “The doctors are taking very good care of mom”; “We have many people that love us and will help us.”

Young children need to know that their bad behaviour didn’t cause the death, that they can’t catch the disease or can’t make the illness worse. Often children I have spoken to, experience a sense of unfounded guilt. Through their magical thinking I’ve heard “I didn’t do what mommy said and was bad, then she went to work and didn’t come home.” These fears are often held inside.

Many children will express the pain of grief through acting-out behaviour. Children may have temper tantrums, defy authority or simply rebel against everyone. Here are some examples and why a child may exhibit these behaviours:

Feeling of insecurity: Though a natural feeling after tragedy, acting-out may unconsciously provide them with a sense of control and power.

Feeling of abandonment: After a death or lengthy hospital stay children may feel abandoned. Consequently, they feel unloved and their self-esteem may be low. Acting-out creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: “See, nobody loves me.”

A desire to provoke punishment: This comes from the unconscious feeling of guilt or self-blame. Acting-out behaviour elicits that punishment.

Externalizing feelings of grief: If a child isn’t given the opportunity to share feelings, they internalize them. Acting-out is a way of saying “I hurt too!”

Children have often taught me that day-to-day experiences may connect and surface feelings such as anger and sadness. For example when a parent raises their voice to get something done it will make a child feel bad and connect them to the sad feelings around their grief. “I have asked you five times to do your homework” – “I don’t want to. I wish Daddy was here, he used to help me.”

Other things we can do to support children are to encourage a child’s participation in care or at a funeral. Normalize feelings: “I feel sad and mad too.” Listen; sometimes there are no words or answers. Play, go for walks, bake cookies or have a pillow fight!!

Parents and caregivers need a break too and don’t need to be strong as a rock all the time! Taking care of themselves both physically and emotionally sets a good example for a child as they are always watching. Explain that you need ‘adult time’ to help you grieve too and arrange a playdate or babysitter. Give yourself permission to heal.

You know your children the best so trust your instincts; each child is unique. Create a safe, secure and loving environment where you and your children feel comfortable to share and explore the difficult feelings and thoughts of grief.

“To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world.” ~ Dr. Suess

Photo by Laurent Peignault on Unsplash

Karen Simmonds
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