Grief is its own special kind of monster, especially for kids. I’m not a therapist or medical professional, but I am a mom to two kids who’ve experienced more loss and changes in their young lives than most adults. Along this journey, I learned a few things about the differences between the way adults and kids grieve.
Grief comes for many reasons: divorce, changing schools, a friend moving away, and of course, death. There are many reasons for grieving, and there are varying degrees and stages of grief.
As an adult, if you feel sad or grief, you may be able to pinpoint why you feel this way. And you have options to deal with it. Message or call a friend. Play on the Internet. Practice retail-therapy. Run. Work out. Eat your feelings. Take a mental health day. Read a book or a magazine. Watch a movie. Go home and bury yourself under the covers. Lock yourself in the bathroom and cry.
(I didn’t say they were all good or healthy options, but these are options nonetheless.)
But kids can’t just get up and leave, especially if they’re in school. They can’t pull out their phone and play Minecraft for a few hours. They can’t talk to their friends to try to take their minds off things.
Many children also may not be able to articulate their feelings, or may try to deny it. My son denied for years that he grieved the loss of his dad, and he’d get angry if anyone implied that some of his behavior was due to grief. It took many years and lots of reassurance that it was okay to be sad before he could talk about his feelings of loss.
Kids have limited outlets for their grief. I’m generalizing, but at school, a grieving child is expected to sit still, feet on the floor, eyes forward, no talking, take notes, do well. Grief or not, there’s a behavior that’s expected in school, and “proper” behavior may be really difficult for a kid who experienced loss.
Grieving kids might need to wiggle to get out extra energy. Or talk to friends to clear their minds. Or take a break.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that many teachers may not have dealt with grieving children. My son was the first in his school to lose a parent, and the principal and teachers did not know how to react to him – or me. After three years, I was told that my son should be over the death of his dad, and that “we” needed to move on. But my son wasn’t over it, and we couldn’t just “move on.” We changed schools.
It’s an ongoing journey, but I wanted to share a few more things I’ve learned about childhood grief:
Learn the Triggers. Grief can be triggered by all kinds of things. One minute a kid might be completely fine, but the next, they start acting out or crying or screaming or clawing at their skin. For us, one trigger involved the Christmas concert. It wasn’t because his dad wouldn’t be there. No, my son would break down before every Christmas concert because he had to wear a tie. And his MOM had to show him how to tie it. In most homes, tying a tie would fall to dad to show son how to do it. The act of wearing a tie made my son feel different. It reiterated that he didn’t have a dad and that his dad was dead. It was hard for him to focus during the concert. He would get really wiggly on the riser, unable to stand still. My son would talk between songs to whomever was standing nearby. He would pull at his clothes.
I’ll be honest: it was hard to watch because he wasn’t acting like he was supposed to AND because I knew why.
Remember and celebrate. It’s incredibly hard to want to talk about the source of the grief and to celebrate the person behind those feelings of loss. But it helps. The kids celebrate their dad’s birthday with his favorite food (pepperoni pizza) and dessert (white cake with white frosting). We remember the day of his death with a balloon launch. The kids write messages to their dad on the balloons (in his favorite color: red) before we release them. We keep our last family photo framed in the living room, and we talk about him. Being open and free with being able to discuss the source of the grief has helped the kids cope and process their emotions.
Grief comes in cycles – and it repeats. The Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief clearly outline what many people experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I’ve learned, though, that kids may go through the stages more than once. My son was just six years old when his dad died, and as my son gets older, I’ve noticed him repeating some of the stages. Some of this comes from how kids process feelings and emotions. As they age, they understand more and that might mean reprocessing their grief through wiser and more mature eyes. It can be difficult to watch – just when you think you’ve turned a corner, there’s regression – but it’s normal.