How to help children handle grief
THE TEACHER'S STORY
"Hey, Jimmy, come on! Let's build a garage!" Sam called out to his friend from the block corner.
Jimmy didn't answer. He was sprawled out on the floor, idly spinning the wheels of a toy ambulance he brought from home.
Jimmy's behavior was not surprising. A week ago, he'd lost his beloved grandfather. I was thinking that he'd probably be dejected for a few days, when suddenly Jimmy jumped up, stuffed the toy ambulance in his pocket, and hurried over to Sam. In no time at all, the two 4-year-olds were building and laughing together. A short while later, however, Jimmy's sad mood returned. As he sat alone during outdoor play, clutching his toy ambulance, I sat beside him.
"Look," I said, pointing at an earthworm.
"Grandpa and I got worms to go fishing," Jimmy said. "We can't go anymore, because my grandpa died. he had a heart attack."
Before I could put an arm around the child and let him know how sorry I was, he ran off. Minutes later I saw him noisily scaling the jungle gym with three other boys. For a short time I thought Jimmy's usual high spirits had returned but, once again, it didn't last. Why has his mood become so changeable? Does he understand what happened to his grandfather? Is there any way I can make it easier for him to cope with this profound loss?
THE PARENT'S STORY
My wife's dad died suddenly last week, although he'd had a bad heart for a long time. My wife has been upset, of course, and she's worried about Jimmy, too. Our son spent a lot of time with his grandfather. just two weeks ago, they'd gone fishing in the pond near my father-in-law's place and had a great time.
Sometimes when his grandpa would visit, they'd get down on the floor and play with Jimmy's collection of toy cars and trucks. His grandpa gave him most of these toys-including the little ambulance he's been carrying around since the real ambulance took his grandfather to the hospital on Friday.
There was no hiding things from Jimmy. He was right there all the time, intent on his mom's worried face while she talked to the doctor on the phone. When she came home from the hospital with the sad news, we all cried. Jimmy seemed bewildered, but we thought it was best not to leave him out of things, so he came to the funeral. It's hard to tell if we did the right thing. Jimmy's been telling people who come to the house, "My grandpa's dead," but a minute later he skips off to play and acts as if nothing's happened. But every so often he'll suddenly get either much quieter or really noisy. I wonder if he understands what has happened. Should we encourage him to talk about it?
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Make no mistake: Jimmy does understand what has happened. And his reaction is typical of a 4-year-old who has lost a beloved grandparent. People often think young children don't understand death because they react differently than adults do. It's difficult for them to tolerate sadness for a long time, so their grief is intermittent. Jimmy may not fully understand the finality of death, but he can experience grief.
Children express grief in many ways. Some become clingy and fearful or have nightmares, while others become aggressive. Still others, like Jimmy, alternate between sadness and their usual demeanor.
What the Teacher Can Do
It's good for Jimmy to know that his teacher is there, as she has been, allowing him to share his thoughts at his own pace. There will be more opportunities for him to do this through play in the days ahead. It would be wise to keep the parents informed about any comments he makes about his grandpa's death, or any worries he expresses.
What the Parent Can Do
Jimmy's father was right to include him in the family's way of honoring and remembering his grandfather. Although every effort should be made to protect a young child from witnessing overwhelming grief of family members, seeing a parent cry at a time like this helps the child to know that it's okay to be sad over such a loss.
It is not a good idea to urge Jimmy to talk about his loss unless he wants to. When he does, simple, age-appropriate answers are best. It's enough to say, "Grandpa's heart was weak and very tired, so it stopped. The doctors did everything." As the weeks go by, any questions Jimmy has may be expressed directly or through play. If he seems worried about himself or others dying, his parents should reassure him that his heart is strong, as are theirs, and that they expect to be together for a very long time.
HELPING CHILDREN TO MANAGE GRIEF
Grief over a great loss is difficult to endure at any age-and offering appropriate consolation for it is not much easier. Even among adults, shared awareness of mortality cannot totally remove another person's pain. Consoling a child who has lost a beloved family member is perhaps an even greater challenge. Many adults are so ill at ease with the subject that they become persuaded that children do not feel the pain of a loss such as this.
The fact that children float in and out of sadness so rapidly is enough to convince them that kids do not understand the permanence of death. What is more likely, though, is that children do understand that the loss is permanent. They've learned through their experiences with animals or with nature, as in the case of the goldfish or fallen tree that can never be revived. It's just that the pain of personal loss comes and goes, as it does for adults who describe grief washing over them in waves.
If we are to console a grieving child, we can do so best by following his lead. When he expresses sadness, we can gently let the child know we understand. If he is being playful, seeming oblivious to the loss instead, we should go along with that mood. It is the child's agenda of mourning that should take precedence, rather than our own expectations of how the child should be behaving.
Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.