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Kids and Grief

Many years ago, around the time of 9/11, I was a nanny in New Jersey for a family with two young boys. The parents were born and raised in Manhattan and therefore most of their friends and family still lived and worked in NYC. On that horrible morning, they lost several friends in the attacks on the World Trade Center. In an effort to shield their three year-old "Hank" from the horror of the event, they refused to talk about the event or air any 9/11 media coverage in front of their son. I did my best to support them in their very complicated and traumatic grief reactions, while also tending to the needs of their boys. One morning Hank constructed tall towers from his cardboard "brick" blocks. He slowly stacked them up, one by one, as tall as he could manage. Then he did the most surprising thing: he picked up a small toy airplane and crashed it into the towers. For days I watched as Hank repeat these actions. 

At the time, I was preparing to head off to graduate school. I had spent a few years interning with a children's grief center and helping with a camp for kids who'd lost family members. I felt like I knew a lot about grief reactions in young kids, but that warm Fall day in New Jersey with Hank schooled me. What I learned then (and have seen over and over since), is that children grieve in their very own way, and they know A LOT more than we think they do.

Child Development & Grief Reactions

The famous child psychologist Jean Piaget once said "Play is the work of children." Fred Rogers put it this way: "Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning." So many years ago, Hank showed me through his play that he was grieving the only way he knew how. Where he lacked words to attach to his complex emotions, he practiced his grief over and over through play. This is an age-appropriate response to grief and loss.

As adults, we have "filters" we apply to our emotions. Even in complicated grief, we may try to contain, filter, or manage our responses based on who we are with, where we are, or how safe we might feel. Young children are blissfully unfiltered. They may strike us with the bluntness of their raw emotions or observations. Very young children (2-5) may act out or play out their feelings . School-aged children may process grief with lots of questions, acting-out behaviors, physical responses (tummy aches, headaches), or existential pondering ("What happens after death?") Adolescents may want to talk and talk, or they may shut down communication altogether.

What is important to know is that each child is going to process grief not only within  their unique personality, but also according to what they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing. A multitude of reactions, from emotional to spiritual, is not only expected, but perfectly normal.

What to Say

What I encourage of parents of young children who have lost a loved one to death is to fully involve the child in conversations, to share information, and to provide space for the processing of the circumstances surrounding the event. Our natural inclination as adults is to protect children from harm and to shield them from the harsh reality of death (or accident or injury). Yet in our best efforts to shield them, we often deny them the ability to grieve.

Kids need to hear information in relation to their development. A three year-old can be told, "Grandma is dead. That means she is not coming back. We will not see her again." Older kids need a safe place to ask their questions and say their (sometimes blunt) reactions. Adults should never shame a child for observing something, or shush them for reacting. What kids need is a big safety net of empathy, space to grieve, and people to talk to. Kids might act out funerals, or re-create death scenes with their toys. They might write complicated stories about death, or draw pictures. All of this is NORMAL! Play is the process by which kids practice and interpret life. As adults, our tendency may be to shut down play that disturbs us, or makes us feel uncomfortable, but the reality is that kids will process loss in the language they speak, so we need to provide opportunities for them to do just that.

One of the reasons honest conversations are so important with young children is because kids have active imaginations. Many times, when not given accurate, age-appropriate information, children will imagine far-crazier scenarios than the actual reality. In addition, when children aren't given explanations about the reality of cancer, suicide, divorce, or failed adoption placements, they may assume responsibility for the loss. This is too great a burden for a young child to carry. What kids need most is reassurance, comfort, routine, and the freedom to process in their own unique way.

Giving Space and Allowing for Pace

If we allow children to grieve at their own pace, in their own time, and in their own way, we give them a beautiful gift...They learn both about the reality of death and also how to grieve. We can give them opportunities to fully participate in their family with their own unique responses to loss. As adults, we can let our kids see us grieve and thus help them to learn that grief is a natural reaction to loss. By including children in the process and sharing information, we model for them a healthy way to work through a complicated (but inevitable) fact of life.

What questions do you have about children and grief?