Letting Children Have All Their Feelings

“Don’t leave me!” the little girl with pink ribbons in her hair sobbed as her aunt and young cousin said good-bye to her at the Denver airport. I was returning from a Bereavement Skills Training conference in Colorado and was sitting next to the little girl and her grandmother. The grandmother was holding her and attempting to comfort the young child as she cried. “There, there,” said the grandmother. “Aunt June would not want you to cry.” And so it begins. The “denormalizing” of a normal response to grief. When we lose someone or something we love, we grieve. Yet as a society we are so quick to try to take away pain and sadness, to “fix” children who are hurting. I turned to the little girl and said, “You sound sad. You’re going to miss your Aunt.” She looked at me with her eyes wide open and solemnly nodded as her sobbing subdued and she nestled into her grandmother’s chest. Pretty soon she was playing and singing with her grandmother.

Grief is a normal, natural response to loss, any type of loss. Most often when we think of grief we think of death. But as human beings we grieve all types of loss whether it is the death of a loved (or not so loved!) person, the death of a pet, moving to a new neighborhood, parents divorcing, the end of a relationship or the loss of a dream or a job. Grief is the normal, natural, physical and emotional response to the loss of someone or something loved. The ability to grieve is predicated on our capacity to love and to bond. Grief is a mixture of conflicting emotions and responses ranging from sadness and anger to guilt or relief.

Grief often manifests itself in a variety of physiological responses ranging from confusion, an inability to concentrate, clumsiness, sleep disruption, changes in appetite and energy levels. A child in grief may have been outgoing but is now withdrawn or once easygoing is now hitting or kicking other children on the playground. Or a child’s grades decline or the child now forgets homework, gym clothes or lunch. Children grieve just like adults but their grief looks different. Children do not have the same attention span as adults, so they move in and out of their grief – one minute crying and playing the next.  

Mourning is the public expression of our grief. It has been said that we live in a death-denying society, when it is more accurately a mourning-denying society. We are applauded for being strong, for moving on, for mopping up our tears. We tell children to “be strong for mom” or “you are the man of the house now.” The reality is we need to permit and teach children how to mourn their losses in healthy, constructive ways. One of the ways we mourn is by telling the story of our loss over and over again, adults, older children and teens in words, younger children often through play. It is our job to provide supportive, loving, safe places and communities where children can process their feelings of grief.

I once had a mother say to me, “(My child) only lost her father, I lost my husband.” This is understandable because we think children cannot grieve to the same depth we do as adults. Again, grieving children look different than grieving adults. They tend to go in and out of sadness. But children need the assistance of adults when they’ve had a loss for a number of reasons. Children do not have the experience to know that they will be okay. They have not had the chance to develop skills for coping with painful feelings and emotions. It is the job of caring adults to offer unconditional love and acceptance, to bear witness, to be with a child in pain without trying to fix or take away the pain.

When I was 14 my father died of cancer. My dad was funny, caring and kind. My first thought and fear was wondering how we were going pay the bills! And I decided it was my job to make sure my mom didn’t feel lonely or sad. Quite a burden to place on myself! But this is typical of children who have had a parent die. Children are naturally ego-centric – we worry about who is going to take care of us and will our lives stay the same. We hope we won’t have to move and that we will still get new school clothes or go on vacation. And while some children rebel, others (like me) became extra responsible, taking on household chores and trying to do the impossible – to protect our remaining parent from any feelings of sadness or loneliness. Parents, teachers and adults often ask “what should I say” or “what should I do” when a child they know has experienced a painful loss. We say: Give them your love. Give them your time. Give them your attention. Give them your faith that they will get through this. These are the messages grieving children need from adults.

To find free grief support for children and families near you visit The National Alliance for Children’s Grief.

For individual grief support for you or your child or teen contact mary@marylrobinson.com.

Recent posts

Grief isn’t good or bad. It just is.

Grief isn’t good or bad, or right or wrong. Grief just is. Grief is the array of emotions we feel in response to losing someone or something we love or value in our lives.

They key to how well, or how “good” we’re going to do after a loss is mourning. Mourning is the outward expression of our internal feelings.

read more