Guest post by Sally Baird, Ph.D.
Four years ago, the Seabury family suffered a sudden, traumatic loss when a beloved teacher, Mr. H, died in a traffic accident. This spring, two local swim coaches were killed in a plane crash. On top of these losses, there may be a number of personal family losses to grieve. How do children process these important losses and could they still be grieving four years later? This article will address lingering grief and offer some suggestions to parents to help their children in the grieving process.
Children go through many of the same stages of grief as adults, but without the cognitive and emotional maturity to understand what has just happened. The following description is what is typical in “normal grief.” After the initial news of a death, a child usually feels numb and stunned. As the child begins to absorb the loss, her brain goes onto automatic pilot. Her emotional state fluctuates widely and she may often put up a defensive wall to her feelings. This means that she could (unconsciously) decide that it is better not to let herself feel the pain of the loss than to let the feelings out. At this early stage, it is common to develop magical thinking or thinking that is not completely true (examples to follow).
In the next stage, the grieving child may begin to comprehend that her parents cannot keep her world entirely safe. She realizes that there can be danger, not only to the person she lost, but to other loved ones and to herself. At some point, the child begins to have intense longings for the lost person. This stage reflects the inner struggle of “holding on” and “letting go.” During this time, the child may develop sleep problems and have more suppression of feelings unless he or she is actively processing the grief.
Typically, the next few stages involve a preoccupation with the lost person, a searching for the lost one, and feelings of intense emotions. These feelings can seem overwhelming, but a key principle is to the let the child know that normal grief is intense, and it is okay to feel and express emotions. In the final stages, the child makes an adaptation to life without the lost person. She retains fond memories of the deceased, but she begins to build a life which does not include her loved one.
These stages can take one to two years, but it is not uncommon to be “stuck” in the grief process for several years. The factors that can keep grief stuck are numerous, but one common condition is when the “magical thinking” or untrue beliefs that developed at the time of the loss are not processed, challenged, and corrected. Common distortions can include:
I can’t remember how he looked or acted.
If I talk about her, I will forget her.
If I don’t let myself feel sad, it won’t hurt so bad.
I just won’t feel.
How can I feel happy, when he’s gone and his family must still be so sad?
I’m the only one who still misses her.
How could people have appeared happy within days of his death?
I am angry at her for dying.
What if someone else close to me dies? I can’t think about it.
The world is not safe.
Left unchallenged and unprocessed, this magical thinking can keep a child locked in the grief process. Yet parents and teachers may not even be aware that their child is “stuck”, because the loss is not spoken about and may be actively avoided.
What can a parent or teacher do? Here are a few tips which should tell you more about where your child is in his or her grief process.
- Open a conversation about the death or loss.
- Give permission for the expression of feelings of sadness and anger by expressing some of your own feelings.
- Tell stories about the departed people.
- Create a memory box of the lost one.
- Share pictures.
- Interview others about their memories.
- Keep a dialogue going about feelings and memories.
- Get age-appropriate library books for your child on grief.
- Get professional help if you think your child remains stuck.
In the fall, I plan to offer a two-to-three session group for Seabury students who may want to talk about Mr. H or other losses. In the meantime, some of these suggestions may be very helpful to your child. It is important to remember that loss is inevitable, but the way it is processed can lead to healthy resolution or not.
Sally Baird, Ph.D. 253-952-4366
Licensed Psychologist www.sallybairdphd.com