Do Children Grieve?

BY: Helen Fitzgerald


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Far from protecting children, the steps that parents consciously or unconsciously take to minimize their children's grief may make it far worse than it has to be. Discouraged from saying how they really feel, excluded from family events (like funerals), left to pretend that nothing has happened, children feel isolated, abandoned, and angry. If their grief remains unresolved, it can have very long-term effects, even affecting their adult lives. I have worked with many adults suffering the effects of unresolved grief from childhood.

Bereaved children need the adults in their lives to understand that their grief is real and to show them how to express it constructively.

At what age is a child capable of mourning the death of a loved one? Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a well-known author and lecturer, puts it this way: "If a child is old enough to love, that child is old enough to grieve." After all, even very young children are able to feel the void in their lives when a loved one is gone. And even very young children will pick up the emotions of those caring for them, sensing that something is amiss. Parents may want to believe that there is no real grief there, but failing to deal openly with a child's loss can be, and often is, harmful to the child.

One of my most enjoyable experiences has been conducting a "little people's" group for pre-school children--some as young as 3--who have had parents or other loved ones die. Some arrive very sullen and distant. It has been a joy to see how their attitudes and behavior have changed for the better week after week, all because they have been able to say how they feel and to grieve the losses they have suffered at such a tender age.

If a child is old enough to love, that child is old enough to grieve.

Fortunately, most parents won't be faced with such serious issues as the death of another parent or other close family member. But just as we buy insurance against events we hope never happen, parents ought to prepare their children for the possibility of such a loss by teaching them about life and death.

For example, if a goldfish dies, don't just flush it down the toilet; use the dead fish as a way to talk about death. Discuss what that goldfish could do when it was alive and what it can't do now. Decide with your child what to do with the body of the fish, perhaps even having a small funeral for it. It's also a good idea to have a book dealing with death in your child's library. There are some splendid books available, including such classics as "Charlotte's Web," by E.B. White. It's especially good to spend time talking with your child about a book like this after you've read it together.

You might even consider taking your child to the funeral of someone he or she didn't know very well. There, your child could see from a safe distance what goes on when people die. If you do this, however, prepare your child for what will be happening there, and don't ask her to say or do anything she doesn't want to say or do.

Much as we hate to think so, death is an inevitable part of life. Much as we would like to, we cannot shield our children from grief and loss. When children face the loss of a loved one, parents have a responsibility to see that their kids are not made to fend for themselves. Grief is too important to be left to chance.

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