Heavy Hearts: When Children Experience Loss
Posted: October 10, 2012
Recently, our 4-H family had a volunteer leader die suddenly. She will surely be missed by her family, friends and 4-H club members. This brought to mind how, as adults, we deal with death and how that impacts the children around us. Every family experiences loss at some point in time. While the adults in the family try to deal with the loss, many times they don’t know how to help their children through this difficult time and beyond. How can family members help children who have experienced loss? The following article was taken from Penn State Extension’s E-Newsletter written by Christine Belinda, Early Childhood Program Specialist.
Understanding your own feelings and ideas about loss will help you better connect with your own children. Think about these questions: How do you personally handle loss, sadness, and grief? How was death (and loss) explained or not explained to you as a child? What are your concerns in exploring loss and grief with your children? What has prepared you to help your children through loss?
Children experience loss in many ways. Parents and family members can help children face change. The key is to be a good communicator and a conscientious observer. Pay close attention to your children’s behavior, play, expressions, or lack of. Often children’s behaviors may be clues to their feelings and to what they are experiencing. Grieving may not always be presented in tears but by listening and watching for what they say and don’t say.
Experiencing loss isn’t limited to a death, but can be separation or divorce, moving to a new location, or anything considered a significant loss or trauma in their life. Both age and children’s overall development (cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and cultural) affect how children perceive loss, grief, and sadness.
Children under the age of six have a limited sense of the permanency of death. They may think someone who has died will be able to reappear later. As children age and mature, concepts of loss, including death, become more concrete. Along with understanding the permanency of death, they are better able to explore and identify their emotions. Experts also remind us that even though there are predictable developmental understandings, children grieve and experience loss in their own unique individual way and in their own unique time.
Children, including infants, are perceptive to the adults, environments, and situation around them. They notice when there is change or a difference in the way they are being cared for. In essence, children can sense when things are wrong. Sensing change may prompt new or different behaviors: babies may be fussier, toddlers may become angry, and preschoolers may become withdrawn. Emotions and behaviors exhibited by children experiencing loss are often unpredictable.
Since young children are very literal, we need to be sure we find the right words to say. Think about how death might be explained to a child: “She passed away;” “He’s sleeping in heaven,” etc. Although these are meant to protect and comfort children, what they actually do is confuse children or even worse, encourage fear. “If I go to sleep, will I die, too?”
The best language to use with children is honest language. Children don’t need cover-ups or fuzzy answers – they want to know what happened, what’s going on, and why. It’s a delicate dance of providing information that is honest and supportive, but yet not overwhelming or too upsetting. What you say to children depends on their ages, their family wishes, their understandings, and their emotional vulnerability. Be honest in talking with children and use language and information they can understand.
Children need to feel safe and loved. Many children will experience what some experts call re-grieving. As children change developmentally, it brings new understanding into their grief process. Different experiences through children’s lives may also trigger re-grieving. Loss is not about forgetting, but rather about the process of understanding and healing. Children can, with adults’ help, work through complex loss and come out healthy, happy and strong.