The first experiences of loss in a child’s life that can lead to grief and bereavement may have nothing to do with death at all. Children may grieve when their new toy is broken or stolen, when they misplace and lose a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, or when they move to a new home and attend a new school. Children can also experience loss when a friendship dissolves or their parent’s divorce. While usually smaller in scale, these loss experiences can bring about grief reactions and a bereavement process similar to that of experiencing a death. Frequently, a child’s first experience of death that results in bereavement and grief occurs when a family pet passes away such as a dog, cat, fish, hamster, etc. This loss is often significant in that the pet is a member of the family and a companion for the child. The subsequent grief and bereavement from losing a pet can result in mood disorders, social isolation, and difficulties in school performance. Given the incidence of traumatic events covered via news reports such as natural disasters, school shootings, and war, children may even experience grief and bereavement for individuals they do not personally know or with whom they have never been in contact. Despite the numerous types of loss children experience, what happens when a child experiences the loss of a family member? The loss of salient familial relationships in a child’s life undoubtedly leads to grief and bereavement processes that may impact the child for an extended period of time.
Research indicates that within one year following the loss of a loved one, children commonly exhibit grief, distress, and extreme sadness. Unresolved grief in childhood may lead to persistent emotional and behavioral difficulties throughout the lifetime, including depression, anxiety, isolation, and poor school performance. As a result, it is important for parents to recognize when grief is causing significant disruption in their child’s life and seek appropriate psychological care if needed. Symptoms that children may exhibit after experiencing the death of a loved one, include:
- Sadness, distress, depression
- Increased aggression, anger, or anxiety
- Thoughts of death, thoughts of suicide
- Decline in school performance
- Withdrawal from friendships and activities the child used to enjoy
- Magical thinking – Children may believe that they somehow were responsible for or caused the death of their loved one. This thought distortion is very common in children under the age of 8 years old, but may occur in older children after the loss of a family member.
- Regression – Children may exhibit regressed behaviors such as bed wetting, overly clingy behavior with caregivers, and inability to perform tasks they mastered prior to the death of the loved one
So what can parents do to help their grieving children? Some recommendations include:
- Talk to your child about death in a clear and developmentally appropriate way
- Be available to your child by telling them you are available to talk when they are ready to discuss their feelings or ask questions about the deceased loved one
- Do not force your child to discuss the death if they are not ready
- Allow your child to attend funeral and/or memorial services, if the child would like to attend
- Develop rituals to remember the loved one or express the feelings of missing him or her
- Seek professional help from a qualified clinician if you are concerned about your child’s response to the death
Children and families can benefit from attending therapy to process their emotions and thoughts regarding the death of a loved one in a safe and warm environment. If you would like assistance for your child or yourself with the grief process, please contact Dr. Gina Zuccolo at 813-357-9612 to schedule an appointment. Additionally, the following resources are available for you to learn more about the grief process:
Children’s Encounters With Death, Bereavement, and Coping by Charles Corr, Ph.D. & David Balk, Ph.D. (2010)
On Grief and Grieving: Finding Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler (2005)
http://www.dougy.org/ - The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families. A website dedicated to grief in childhood with information, resources, and activities for parents and grieving children.