“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 NIV
When I was a little girl, I would go to slumber parties. These parties were filled with laughter, silliness, and watching a movie. However, there was one movie, The Neverending Story, that always made me cry. It had a scene with the death of an animal, and I really cared about animals. Every time I would watch that scene, even though I knew the end of the movie, streaks of tears would fall down my face. One night, as we watched it, I could feel myself on the verge of tears; but that night I made the decision that I was done with crying and feeling sad. As the movie played, I held it together and forced myself to watch that scene with a dry face. Even with all my friends crying in the room, I remained stoically dry-eyed. Afterward, I felt a powerful feeling that I liked. I didn’t know it at the time, but, now, I would call that feeling pride.
Back then, I felt like I had stumbled upon a genius new strategy, and, so, my journey into avoidance began. I wouldn’t let things affect me like I had allowed them to affect me before. It seemed to work—too well. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I slowly began to go numb. As I numbed myself to sadness, I also numbed myself to delight. It was many years later when I realized I had made a mistake, and I had to learn to let my heart be moved again. Over time, I did, and I am blessed to say that when my father died in 2017, I was able to weep and weep with others.
Now as I reflect back on his death, I can remember the sadness and deep pain, but I also remember the love and support of those who empathized with me. Even in the exquisite pain of my grief, I wasn’t alone. Because I could weep with those who were safe, I was comforted.
At GriefWorks, we hope to provide a safe place for families to share and be comforted during their time of grief.
What is Grief?
Grief is our response to loss. This response may be physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and/or spiritual. Grieving is usually a unique combination of these responses for each person.
Physical reactions to grief may include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Digestive difficulties
- Muscular aches
- Changes in appetite
Emotional reactions to grief may include:
- Guilt and self-blame
Cognitive reactions to grief can include:
- Easily overwhelmed
- Obsession w/deceased
- Loss of focus
- Magical thinking (I made it happen)
Behavioral reactions to grief can include:
- Aggressive behaviors/irritability/tension
- Avoiding reminders
- Seeking reminders
- Diminished/Increased performance at work/school
Spiritual reactions to grief can include:
- Anger at God
- Strengthening of faith
- Search for meaning
- Questioning faith/values
Children and Grief
Grief is universal, and children grieve. If a child can respond to separation, then he/she has the capacity to grieve. While there can be some similarities between how adults and children grieve, there are also some distinctions. For example, the age and development of the child can affect how they understand death.
Pre-schoolers/young children: Children between the ages of 2-4 typically understand death to be temporary and reversible. You may hear questions like, “When will mom come back?” even after you’ve explained death to the child. It is also very common for grieving children this age to demonstrate major regression to an earlier developmental stage (toilet-training, language, and/or clinging behavior).
School-age: A child between the ages of 5-8 is more prone to guilt and magical thinking. You may hear comments like “It’s my fault this happened.” Children this age may also think of death as a person (the boogeyman), and their dreams and fears may reflect this. A child between the ages of 9-12 is beginning to understand the permanency of death like an adult, but he/she may want more details of what happened. You may hear questions like, “What happened to Grandpa? And then what?” Children this age are also prone to somaticizing grief, which means grief may be expressed in their body; for example, they may complain of more headaches and stomachaches. They may also revert to more clinging behavior and/or experience anger outbursts.
Adolescents: Teens between the ages of 13-18 tend to understand death to be permanent and universal. They understand that death can happen to you and me. After a death, teens may feel a desire to connect with family and a desire to continue exploring independence, which can lead to friction within families. Teens may also develop their own opinions and views about morality, the world, and their role that may or may not differ from those of their family and the person who died.
When to Ask for Help?
Here are some signs to watch out for:
- If a child cannot speak about the person who died ever, or he/she leaves the room when the person’s name is mentioned;
- A child whose aggression becomes destructive, especially if this is new or unusual behavior;
- A child who develops persisting anxiety
- Any expression of suicidal ideation
- Substance abuse
How to Help Grieving Children:
“With support and understanding, bereaved children usually learn early in life that human beings cannot have complete control over themselves and their world. They learn that faith and hope are central to finding meaning in whatever one does in this short life. They learn a true appreciation for life and what it has to offer…”
“… They learn to look for the goodness in others. They learn an empathetic appreciation for the suffering of others. And perhaps most of all, they learn to meet not only their own needs, but to help others meet theirs.” – Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D, Companioning the Grieving Child: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers, 2012. Dr. Wolfelt is the director of Center for Loss and Life Transition, Fort Collins, Colorado (www.centerforloss.com)
Some tips for parents and caregivers:
- One of the strongest predictors of how well a child will function is how well his/her parent is functioning after a death (https://hospicefoundation.org/Professionals/Experts-Talk-EOL-Care/Interview-with-Dr-J-William-Worden). If you need additional support, please ask for help. This also models for children that it’s okay to ask for help, which is one of the most important coping tools we can teach.
- Use clear explanations of death and dying, without euphemisms, such as “lost,” “passed away,” or “sleeping,” etc. Use the words dead, died, death, and dying.
- Let the child choose if they would like to participate in the funeral and burial rituals. If they do, prepare the child by explaining what to expect, including what they will see at the funeral. For example, they may see photos, the coffin, adults who are crying, etc.
- Allow and encourage the child to retain his/her rightful place in the family as a child.
- Accept a child’s expression of feelings and continue with appropriate boundaries for behaviors.
- Keep routines and structure in the child’s life as near to normal as possible. The rules for conduct should stay the same.
- Children need outlets to release their energy. It’s important to recognize that children share equally through their play. Pay attention to their behaviors and play.
- Understand that grief may vary, even within a family. Remember, grief is unique for each person. One child may express a lot of emotions. Another child may want to do things in memory of the person who died.
- Become a listener.
- Know that you will not have all the answers, and “I don’t know. What do you think?” is an honest and powerful response. Listening to their answer will help you know how to respond and what information they may need.
- Communicate with the people in the child’s life (teachers, coaches, etc.) because they can be part of the support system.
- Allow for remembering and memorializing the person who died. Memories are important and powerful. Please don’t avoid them.
- Remind the child that they show courage when they grieve.
“I think when you care for someone who is going through this terrible process of losing someone, it really is more about listening to them and seeing where they’re at in their learning than it is about trying to make them feel better. The point is not to cheer them up. The point is to be with them and let them know that you will be with them and that you can imagine a future for them where they’re not constantly being knocked over by the waves of grief.” Mary-Frances O’Connor
Sometimes we need more than what our friends and family can provide. The purpose of GriefWorks is to provide a safe and supportive environment for children ages 5-17 and their adult family members who are grieving the death of a family member or friend.
Our groups can provide a sense of community to counter the sense of isolation so many people experience while grieving. Being with others can also help normalize the grief experience by allowing family members to observe a wide range of grief expressions and coping styles. Our groups also address issues for children and teens at their developmental phase of life, while also providing support and education for parents and caregivers.
These groups offer a setting where coping skills can be observed and learned for present and future application. Group members often find that coping skills that are taught or modeled in our support groups apply to other situations in their lives at home, school, or in the community.
We hope that along the grief journey, individuals and families see a diminishing in the intensity of their grief, that they begin to function as well as they did prior to the loss using healthy coping skills, and that they understand their grief will continue and evolve as they go throughout their lives.
Final Note: In response to the mass shooting at the Allen Outlet Mall ChristianWorks, in partnership with KLTY 94.9 and a few donors, has created a fund to provide FREE counseling to families and first responders from this tragic event. Please contact our offices to speak to our counseling coordinator today at (800) 375-2229