A Few Basics About Grief and Children

Emotions, such as grief and sadness, are appropriate for people at any age. All people, no matter what age, work through grief differently. Your personal way of dealing with grief will be based on your previous experiences and how you were taught to cope with challenges. If you have witnessed how members of your family handled grief in the past, you may try to handle losses in the same way that you perceived them to have done.
There is no specific period of time that a person should grieve. Everyone has his or her own timeline. There is no set amount of time that you or your child will take in moving through these transitions.
Everyone shows a wide range of emotions when grieving. They may respond with feelings such as guilt, anger, worry, fear, shock, relief, hopelessness, or loneliness. They most likely will exhibit common physical symptoms such as crying, loss of appetite, or the disruption of normal sleep patterns. Because some symptoms of grief are very common, they are considered “normal” in the sense that they are “typical”, statistically speaking, for a majority of people. A problem with the word “normal” is that some people may have a different reaction that is understandable for them within their own frame of reference, but sometimes hard for other people to recognize as “normal for them” because it is different from their own experience.

Symptoms of “normal” (typical) grief may include:
• Feeling sad
• Feeling angry
• Feeling fearful
• Feeling guilty
• Feeling numb
• Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
• Lack of energy
• Weight loss or weight gain
• Loss of appetite
• Sleeping more than before
• Difficulty sleeping
• Physical ailments (i.e. headaches, stomachaches)
• Crying
• Clinginess
• Separation anxiety
Some people experience fewer symptoms than others do, showing a degree of “resilience” that people around them may not understand or identify with. It’s important to understand what the terms “resilience” and “durable” mean in the context of grief.
• Resilience is a psychological term for a sort of mental toughness that some people have when faced with stressful situations. People who are resilient can “take a licking and keep on ticking” unusually well.
• Durable literally means “hard to break”. In the context of grief, people who are “durable” aren’t just pretending to be O.K., they actually are holding up well despite loss.
Children and adults show about the same frequency of resilience in bereavement. People who have this type of durable response are not necessarily just “putting up a good front” and in need of “opening up” in ways that people around them might prefer. They may simply be coping with change in their own way. One study of over 1,400 children found that over two-thirds of them had been exposed to at least one potentially traumatic event (referred to as a “PTE” in the lingo of trauma researchers). Only a small percentage of these children had diagnosable trauma reactions, and the majority of the children in the study showed no signs of any trauma reaction at all.
Recognizing the difference between healthy resilience and unhealthy avoidance can be difficult, but you know your child best. Children and adolescents may try to avoid their grief by pretending that the loss did not happen and that their world is the same as before. They may avoid conversations about the deceased, and places and events that remind them of their loved one. This type of reaction may look like they are coping well, but maybe they aren’t. Older children may even try alcohol or other drugs to escape reality.
A person may experience anticipatory grief, which is the feeling of loss before the death actually occurs. A person who is going through this type of grief may show many of the same symptoms as a person who is grieving after the death of a loved one. Even if a person experiences anticipatory grief, this does not mean that their grief after the loss will be any less intense or last for a shorter length of time.
“Disenfranchised” grief can occur if the person who has suffered the loss does not have the sense that people they care about are validating the importance of their loss. Those around them discount their loss, leaving the grieving person unsupported. They may end up feeling shamed by the very people who could be helping them. A person who has had a previous experience with disenfranchised grief may be unwilling to show grief in future losses, or may repeat previous patterns of remaining silent even if the new loss is one that would receive social validation.

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