Katie Taggart, MSW, LCSW
November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month. What a perfect time to bring attention to a widely under-recognized issue, but an important issue. An issue that impacts all of society.
Think back to your first loss. Was it a pet? A grandparent? A parent? A sibling? Chances are that you remember who died, how you were told, and how you were treated. The first death in a child’s life will set the stage for all other deaths in the future. Have you heard adults tell a child, “It was just a fish, bird, pet” etc.? How many times have you said or heard someone say, “The kids are fine… they don’t understand what is happening.” This, in fact, could not be further from the truth.
There are so many misconceptions when it comes to children and grief. I’ve had many caregivers ask me whether or not infants and toddlers can grieve. I’ve been told, “My daughter just plays outside like normal. I think she’s fine.” Or some will say, “My teenager wasn’t even close with his grandma, he’s not impacted by her death.” My response is always, “If a child can love, a child can grieve.” An infant or toddler can sense the emotions of his/her caregiver and can mourn the environment that existed before the death; they grieve the changed behavior. Children have short attention spans which impact their mourning. They are able to take intermittent “breaks” from their grief, thus giving the impression they don’t care or don’t notice. Teenagers are at great risk in grief. When the relationship was lacking or non-existent, grief is often caused by the loss of hope or what could have been.
Do children grieve differently from adults?
Yes. And no.
- Need to express grief openly
- Need to have their grief acknowledged by others
- Need extra support through the grief process
- Need assurance it was not their fault
- Need assurance they are not “going crazy”
Child’s grief: intermittent, sometimes seemingly absent
Adult’s grief: continual awareness and experience of loss
Child’s understanding of death: limited to their age and cognitive development
Adult’s understanding of death: more mature in their understanding
Child’s ability to remember the deceased: limited before puberty, may need help remembering
Adult’s ability to remember the deceased: fully developed memories are complete
Child: grows up with the loss, grieves longer
Adult: has already grown up when the death occurs
Children: may talk openly about death
Adults: have preconceived notions about how people respond and may not share their feelings
Child: depends on a consistent caregiver to meet basic needs
Adult: basic needs can be met by self
As adults, we often feel like we need to have all the answers. We worry and feel uncomfortable when asked, “Where is Grandpa?” or, “Why did Mommy have to die?” One of the most important things we must understand is that we are NOT there to fix it. We are there to love and support. We don’t need to have all the answers. Be honest. One of the best responses to a child is, “I don’t know. What do you think?”
Grief expert Alan Wolfelt has coined a fabulous phrase he calls “companioning.” It simply means walking alongside the bereaved. That is the best way we can support a grieving child. Since their grief will change over time, they will need support throughout their lives, especially during important milestones of life (puberty, graduation, marriage). Remain open and available. Be patient. Use simple terms. Provide a safe space for the child to talk about the deceased. Maintain routines and consistency. Ask for help – help for yourself and help for your child.
Books can be a great resource for all ages. Two suggested books are: “When Dinosaurs Die” by Laureen Brown (ages 4-8) and “When Death Walks In” by Mark Scrivani (age13+).
For more information on how to support your child or how to identify normal grief vs. red flags, please contact our office.
About The Author
Katie Taggart, MSW, LCSW
Katie Taggart received her Master’s in Social Work from Saint Louis University and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has extensive experience serving clients with chronic and terminal illness as well as grief and loss. She worked in hospice for 11 years and is comfortable in medical settings. Katie provides private therapy to clients of all ages and enjoys working with both children and adults. She has helped to start a child bereavement program and grief camp for children. She believes in the companioning model of grief therapy and “walks alongside” her clients during their grief journey. She feels there are several kinds of loss and no one or no loss should be minimized.
In addition to Katie’s clinical practice, she provides on-site counseling to seniors and families throughout the continuum of senior living.