How do other kids grieve? Sometimes I feel so alone

Children grieve differently from adults. Some children may be so sad, some may be angry, some may be frustrated, and some may appear not to be feeling anything at all. Adults often feel uncomfortable with the intensity of childrens feelings and may unknowingly try to stop them expressing their feelings. Adults need to know what is normal for bereaved children in order to accept their unfamiliar thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Children also need to know their grief reactions are common and OK. This helps children to diminish their anxiety and worry too.

One family member asked me about my work with grieving children. What do you do to make the children stop crying? I explained my goal was not to make children stop crying, but to create a safe haven for expression of all of their thoughts and feelings.

Often play is an important avenue for communication. What may appear to be a frivolous play activity may actually be a very profound way in which a child is working through their grief process. Role-playing, puppets, artwork, clay, and sand table work are a few of the many ways they can imagine, pretend, and engage in meaningful activities. This allows them to act out or project their grief feelings without having to verbalize them directly.

Kate (6)

My doggy Lucky died. Im so sad. He got hit by a car and killed. Can I talk to Lucky?

Im sorry Lucky got killed. I understand you are sad and miss him a lot. Sometimes it does help to feel like you can talk to Lucky. Heres a toy telephone. You can pretend to give him a call. At home you can sit and hold Luckys picture in your hand while you talk to him. What would you say?

I love you, Lucky. I miss you a lot. I hope youre having fun and that God plays ball with you every day. Can I still help Lucky?

You can show me how you would like to help Lucky by pretending at the sand table or dollhouse or with puppets or toys. You can imagine you are with Lucky and show me some ways you can help him. Lets go to the sand table. Heres a dog like Lucky and a little girl like you. Theres a car too, like the one that hit Lucky. You can make a street with your finger in the sand and show what happened.

I would have moved Lucky out of the way like this. I wish I could tell him Im sorry. I wonder what he would say?

You pretend with the dog puppet and tell Lucky how sorry you are. Then Lucky the puppet can answer you back. You can imagine what Lucky would say and tell him how much you love him. You can even give him a hug and kiss and put a blanket around him.

I would say, I love you, Lucky" and Lucky would lick my face. I like the sand table and puppets. They help me talk to Lucky.My mom worries about me and says I act different. She thinks something is wrong with me. Im tired a lot and nap with Luckys toy on my bed where he slept with me. Is that OK?

That is not only OK, it is very normal. Children your age often like to have a special shirt or toy that belonged to their pet or person. You could even take Luckys dog bed and make a pillow for yourself. You could make a special box to keep his collar in. It helps you feel close to Lucky.

And grieving is tiring. All of our energy goes into grieving and we dont even realize how tired it makes us. You have figured out a place where you can rest and also feel its a spot where you can remember Lucky.

My dad thinks I should play with my friends the way I used to before Lucky died. But sometimes Im sad and want to be alone. Do you understand?

I do. Lots of children feel they need time and space to grieve, and it can be hard to say and do the same things you did with your friends before Lucky died. Sometimes its hard to have fun when you are feeling sad or even angry. Children can even feel guilty about having good times with friends - but you can still have fun and love Lucky too!

I made a list to give your parents about the common ways children grieve. That way they wont worry so much. I am going to share these ways with you too, so that you know youre not different because you have these thoughts and feelings. Many of the common signs of grieving children are the things you told me about. You like to be alone, you get tired, and you have found your bed as a place you can connect with Lucky. You like to sleep with his toy. It just makes you feel better. You like to pretend to talk to Lucky and want to know if you help him. This is all a part of the grief process.

Sometimes in school I think about Lucky so much I cant pay attention. Then my teacher gets angry with me and calls my mom. What can I tell her?

Your teacher needs to know what is common for grieving children too. Sometimes children cant pay attention or stay in their seats. They may call out of turn a lot, not talk at all, or forget their homework. That is because sometimes grief is overwhelming, and children dont know when they will get hit with a big wave of feelings. It may be at a time when they least expect it. It could be when the teacher reads a story about a dog and suddenly you are remembering Lucky.

Your parents could go to school and have a meeting with you and your teacher. I could go too. Your change in your schoolwork is an understandable part of all your feelings about Luckys death. Your teacher is surprised at this change and doesnt understand it is related to your grief. You and I and your mom and dad can help explain that to her.

Heres what we can tell your teacher about grieving children so that she doesnt get scared or angry with you. Sometimes it is hard to do homework or sit still in class. Its difficult to concentrate and that might make you talk too much or not enough. Grieving children can withdraw from friends, or even become the class bully or class clown. There are a lot of behaviors that are common for children like you who have had a person or pet die. It is nice to know parents and teachers understand grieving children.

Concluding thought

Children grieve in their own unique way. It is essential that young people, parents, and educators become aware of what is common for the bereaved child in order to normalize new and challenging feelings and thoughts. Pretending, play-acting, and role-playing are creative outlets to express grief. Age-appropriate props and toys and techniques like drawing and writing are helpful for full expression. Creating a safe environment where children can share tears, frustration, silence, and imagination enhances a healthy grief process. While it can be uncomfortable to watch a child cry, it can be very healing at the right time and place.

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