Children and grief
February 23, 1979
It had been a wintery week in the Mid-Atlantic region, several snow days off with a school holiday tacked on the end. As she had since my birth, when my impossibly young parents started out their brief married life in a childhood bedroom at my grandparents’ house, Mom-mom offered a safe, stable presence. She picked me up that morning. We shopped at the ACME on the way home. And after the groceries were in the house, a row of bags on the kitchen counter, she collapsed and lost consciousness.
The memory is clear, the feelings of confusion and devastation in my nine-year-old self palpable: my slowness to understand what was happening, a frantic phone call to the volunteer fire department, the long wait for the ambulance and the volunteers’ later struggle to get her limp, stout body on the stretcher. After they took her away, my grandfather and I waited it out at a neighbor’s house. I knew she was dead without being told.
The child’s experience of grief
How does a child experience grief? The answer depends on any number of factors, including the age of the child at the time of the loss, the importance of the person who died and the family tasks both material and emotional they fulfilled, and the robustness of other adults in the child’s life. The relative suddenness of the person’s death, whether they suffered a prolonged illness, and the ability of caregivers to anticipate the child’s needs in the wake of illness and death also affect how the child makes sense of their mourning.
Often the adults around the child are caught in the sticky torpor of their own bereavement. The role of the one who has gone, the part he played in the family, is left uncast with no understudy waiting. Family attachment patterns and ways of processing (or not processing) loss take over unconsciously and automatically. The result is that the child is often left alone with her grief and may also be missing the emotional presence of other important adults. Meanwhile, the grownups are suffering, too.
In the weeks after my grandmother’s death, we moved in with my grandfather, who could not live by himself at the time. I changed schools. My mother, not yet 30, was suddenly motherless. A college student, she also now had a long commute to classes and her job, without reliable respite childcare. And me? Craving safety and warmth, needing an extra layer to hold myself together, at night I slept in a sleeping bag nestled under the bedcovers, an army of stuffed animals lined up on either side, sentries against further loss.
Helping your child process his feelings, particularly if you are also reeling from the loss, may feel especially difficult when you have little emotional or financial room for yourself or feel spread thin between responsibilities. My first recommendation—always!— is to be kind to yourself. Self-compassion will open space for you to take in your child’s sadness, anger, and whatever else may be coming up, and help him process it. Getting support from friends, family members, your spiritual community, a therapist, or organizations that help in the wake of loss can also help. For both you and your child/ren, being with others who have gone through similar experiences can be healing (links to San Francisco Bay area organizations that help bereaved families are below).
What you can do on your own
Talk with your child about the person who has passed, sharing memories and stories, and invite the child to share her memories and feelings, giving her space and time to talk when she wants, allowing for the wide range of emotions that may emerge. Make artwork about the deceased. Write letters to them. Mark important occasions. Be open about your experience with grief, discussing your feelings in a way that models appropriate expression of emotion without overwhelming your child with your worries. Include him in any rituals or spiritual practices that are important to you. For example, it can be helpful for children to participate in a funeral or memorial service to the extent they feel comfortable.
If you are able, consider the role the person played in the family and the child’s life. This may take some time for you to process as well, since much of it may be intangible. In the case of my grandmother’s death, though it was obvious that there was no longer someone to watch me on school holidays, what was less obvious, more difficult to name, was the greater sense of stability she brought to our lives and the absolute, grandmotherly feeling of unconditional love she provided me. Recognizing and talking about these intangibles acknowledges the weight of the loss. It gives words and a shape to what you everyone misses, something that so often feels without form or boundary.
If you would like to talk about getting support, feel free to call or email me. For more information on children and grief, I recommend the National Alliance for Grieving Children, which offers useful resources, including a list of local organizations that can help. You can also check out the organizations below.
Bay Area resources
Circle of Care (East Bay Agency for Children)
Offers simultaneous peer support groups for caregivers, children, and adolescents. Located in Oakland.
Parent and child and teen support groups meet two times a month throughout the school year. Located in Pleasant Hill.
Provides a number of resources for grieving children, teens, families, and caregivers, including peer support groups and a camp for children who have lost someone important to them. Located Palo Alto.
Offers peer support groups for children and teens who have lost a significant person. Located in the Sunset District of San Francisco.