Why It’s Important to Help Children Grieving Over Loss
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In today’s world, more awareness exists than ever before about both the complexities and ubiquities of mental health and mental struggles. However, though the conversation is more open and available now than it has ever been, practical know-how to help navigate complex experiences can still be difficult to come by.
This can be particularly challenging when dealing with children.
Helping children who have experienced grief or trauma can be difficult because they do not always have adequate awareness or language to identify what they are feeling or experiencing.
If you are a parent or work with children, it’s vitally important to have a basic idea of common mental health triggers and experiences and know what to do about them.
The Experience of Loss and Grief
One very important (and potentially devastating) experience that nearly every child faces at some point during their childhood is that of loss. Loss can cover a wide range of circumstances and severities. It can cause a number of harmful outcomes if not adequately acknowledged and addressed.
In some cases, it can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression and other diagnoses. It can also create lasting effects or evolve into lifelong problems like long-term mental illnesses, domestic or family violence, inability to cope with normal life stressors, and more.
What “Counts” as Loss
When most people hear about children experiencing loss and grieving, the things that most often come to mind are usually the death or estrangement of a parent, sibling, or extended family member. However, the loss can come in a wide variety of forms. It includes the loss of opportunities, experiences, friendships, security or predictability, material possessions, patterns, abilities, and more.
Even things that end naturally or the way they are supposed to can create difficult feelings of loss for children – finishing kindergarten, leaving summer camp, or completing an extracurricular program can all initiate the experience of loss. Anything that once had value and is no longer accessible or true can trigger the emotions that come with loss.
Understanding the wide array of circumstances that can induce the effects of loss in children is vital for every parent, caretaker, or childcare worker.
Even events that an adult might deem insignificant, or not even think about at all, could register in a child’s experience as a devastating and trauma-inducing loss.
Why It’s So Important to Support Children Who Are Grieving
Loss is an emotionally traumatic experience. Without experiencing a grieving process after suffering loss, the loss can remain in a child’s body and mind similarly to how an unhealed wound can remain painful or damaged, or even actively worsen (e.g. in the case of an infection).
Ungrieved loss can create emotional and physiological trauma or symptoms, just like a physical injury can create physical pain and trauma.
The grief cycle is made up of multiple stages. Though they can vary from one person’s experience to the next and won’t all be present in all cases, fully experiencing grief and completing a healing process usually involves periods of denial, anger, and acknowledgment before finally reaching stages of acceptance and healing.
These stages and feelings can often be foreign and intimidating to children who might not have experienced strong emotions like these before.
In addition, some children may not yet be old enough to engage with those feelings or experiences yet.
Children need guidance, emotional support, safety, stability, and modeling, especially in cases where they are faced with difficult and painful emotions that need to be handled with care.
Tips for Helping Children Through Grief
Identifying symptoms of grief or loss can sometimes be tricky. Paying attention when a child’s life circumstances might create feelings of loss is a hugely helpful way to stay apprised and make sure you are aware of any loss that could create emotional difficulty for a child you care for.
For instance, if a child you’re working with has just moved, has recently lost a pet, or mentions that his or her grandma is in the hospital, pay extra attention to their well-being and watch for signs of the grieving process.
These could include changes in demeanor, an increase in anger or angry outbursts, loss of appetite or interest in things that he or she used to find interesting, depressive symptoms, withdrawal, discontinued social engagement, or a sudden increase in sleep or moodiness.
If you notice one or more of these symptoms exhibited by a child in your life, it is important to consider whether they might be experiencing grief.
If you are caring for a child who is showing one or more of these symptoms or has recently sustained a loss, try asking gentle questions to learn a bit more about what they are currently experiencing. Listen for signs that he or she is feeling sustained sadness, anger, confusion, or fear.
If the child is old enough, you can gently prompt them with more exact questions about how they are feeling or thinking about any recent experiences that may have created a sense of loss.
Making space to share and talk about these things with you in safe and calm ways can begin to model for them how they might understand and come to terms with what they’ve felt and experienced.
It can almost always be advantageous to involve a professional in the process, especially if the grieving experience is severe or long-lasting.
Grief counselors are specifically trained to support people as they navigate experiences of grief and loss. Engaging a grief counselor or similar can be a hugely helpful aid in the process of supporting a child through his or her experiences of grief.
Grief can be a difficult and disorienting experience. Helping children come to terms with it and understand their emotions and experiences during that process can greatly aid their healing and mitigate long-lasting trauma that can result from the loss.
*This article is based on personal suggestions and/or experiences and is for informational purposes only. This should not be used as professional advice. Please consult a professional where applicable.