By Victor M. Parachin
“My most memorable funeral was when I was 16 years old. It was memorable because I did not go,” recalls Joy Johnson. When she was 5, she had a good friend named Stevie Thomas, who was 4. He moved away and returned when Joy was 16. They quickly renewed their friendship. However, the following summer Steve drowned.
“His funeral was held in the big church across the alley from my home, but never having been to a funeral, I assumed they were terrible and frightening and to be avoided at all costs . . . so while the service was going on, I put on my swimsuit and washed my dad’s car in the backyard, listening to the funeral music and letting my tears mix with water from the hose. For years, I regretted not going to the funeral, but I was young, and no one told me about saying good-bye.”
Johnson’s experience points to this sad reality: when there is a death, children are often neglected mourners. Adults lose sight of the fact that children grieve losses—those of a parent, grandparent, relative, friend, teacher, coach. And when a child’s emotional needs are neglected, adults miss key opportunities to provide guidance and support to help children adapt, adjust, and heal.
Here are some commonsense answers about children and grief.
How do children grieve?
Whenever children encounter loss, they grieve. According to Kenneth J. Doka, PhD,
Their grief is both alike and different from the grief experienced by adults. Like adults, their reactions are individual and may be experienced on many different levels. They may experience grief as physical aches and pains. It may affect their behavior, or their ability to concentrate or focus. Children may experience a range of feelings including sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, jealousy, loneliness, or even relief. Like adults, they may struggle spiritually to understand and find some sense of meaning in the loss.
However, children’s grief also differs from that of adults. “Younger children may have a difficult time sustaining strong feelings,” Doka observes. “Because of this short feeling span their moods may shift, and they may experience outbursts of anger or sadness.”
What are signs or symptoms that a child is grieving?
Some of the ways grief may be evident in a child include:
• Acting out behavior
• Tiredness, lack of energy
• Lack of appetite or excessive appetite
• Changes in grades
• Sleep disturbance
• Increased “accidents”
• Physical pains (headaches, stomach aches, skin rashes)
• Regressive behavior such as thumb sucking, bed-wetting, clinging
Should children attend funerals?
The best way to determine this is to ask the child. Generally, children beyond age 4 can express whether they wish to attend a funeral or not. If a child indicates a willingness to participate in a funeral, parents should comply and offer all necessary support.
One 10-year-old remembers what transpired when a 12-year-old friend died.
My parents were planning to attend the funeral and I asked if I could go. They thought it would be better if I remained home and they had my grandmother come to babysit. While it made me feel better to have my grandmother there, I really wanted to be at the funeral and wished my parents had let me go with them.
Do children need advance explanation of what a funeral involves?
Children will be less anxious if they can anticipate what to expect and what they may witness when attending a funeral. As simply and clearly as possible, children should be told what they will see at a funeral. Such advance information can include the location and size of the funeral home, the fact there will be flowers and a casket with a body, and that people may be crying. For younger children, simple statements of explanation such as these are sufficient:
• A funeral is a way to say good-bye to someone we love.
• The funeral home is a building or house where the bodies of people we love are taken care of.
• A casket is a nice box that holds the body.
• It is all right to look at the body.
When there has been a death, is it wise to shield a child from the loss?
It is more upsetting to a child when issues about a death are silenced and neglected. Furthermore, it is impossible to protect children from life’s losses. Such shielding can increase fears and breed feelings of resentment and helplessness.
“If a death isn’t talked about, it indicates there isn’t a supportive environment for expressing feelings of loss,” says Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. Edelman was 17 when her mother died of breast cancer at 42. At the time, Edelman lived with her sister, brother, and father, but they never shared their pain and feelings. “We could meet each other’s physical needs but not the emotional ones, and we all suffered for it,” she says.
How can adults best help a grieving child?
Adults ought to be guided by these four T’s—touch, talk, tears, and time. Grieving children ought to be touched, hugged, and embraced frequently. This delivers important physical comfort to a child. They must also be given ample opportunities to talk to help them express and explore their feelings. Shedding tears is normal and healthy. Children who weep should be told, “It’s OK to cry; I’m sad too.” Finally, children need to know that time brings healing; they will not feel heavy sadness all their lives.
Are there additional ways to help a grieving child?
While there is great value in open verbal communication, children can also be helped through other creative ways of expression. For example, a child can be encouraged to write a letter, either to the deceased, about the deceased, to a survivor, or to God. Likewise, a child can be invited to draw a picture about some aspect of the loss and asked to explain their work of art. Other children might like to write in a daily journal, write poetry, or even write their own music. These greatly aid a child to express grief and adapt to loss.
When spiritual or religious issues emerge, what is the best way to respond?
Place the focus on the reality that God is loving and kind, that God is also sorry and sad about the death. Avoid placing any blame on God; don’t say “God needed him” or “God took her.” This can be confusing and frightening to a child who may come to believe that God also “needs” or will take the child next. Assure your child that God understands our pain and will help us through it.
In addition, turn to prayer when there has been a loss. Ask God to direct you in knowing how to handle your child’s questions, and pray for God to bring healing and peace in spite of the loss. Take comfort from Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
What about a move after the death of a child’s parent?
While a geographical change is a common temptation when there has been a death, caution should be exercised. In his book, Helping Children Cope With Grief, bereavement counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt explains:
My experience has been that it is best to maintain some consistency in the child’s environment following a significant death. To make a move involves much more than just a loss of the home—but also the loss of friends, change of school, and change in a routine. To immediately add these burdens to a child’s existing sense of loss only serves to complicate matters further. Both children and adults can be aided in the process of reconciliation by respecting the pace at which they make other changes in their lives.
Of course, at times circumstances beyond control require that a move take place. When this lack of control is the case, let the child anticipate the move as opposed to thrusting this additional change all at once.
Should children see parent(s) grieving?
Yes. Children who see their parent(s) grieving openly learn to express, not repress, their own feelings. Healing takes place for children when they witness the open grief of important adults in their lives. Wolfelt notes, “The sharing of grief between parent and child assists the family in recognizing both the uniqueness and commonality of their experience.”
Are children permanently scarred because of loss?
Children are quite resilient. While the loss of a loved one can create a negative impact, the right type of support, love, and comfort from significant adults empowers children to adjust and learn to live with loss. Sensitive adults who make time for grieving children become instrumental in taking the black shroud off death and allowing the sun to shine in their lives.
Next Week: “Grieving Widows” (last of a three-part series).
Victor M. Parachin, minister and professional grief counselor, writes books and contributes to a wide variety of publications from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.