How to help a child to under Grieving, Death, and Unfair- Sudden Loss.
It is hard for an adult to understand the loss from the sudden death of a parent or relative. When a child loses a parent, it can be difficult and painful, strangely uncomfortable, and uncertainly travels into all areas of their life. The unknown to a child is scarier than the known. They have a way to rationalize or organize the known. They can remind themselves of all the positive things in the past or remind themselves of steps needed to complete the tasks ahead- even if the task is unpleasant.
A sudden loss or death can shake a child to the core. They are not sure what is happening to their world, and the world they once knew is now shattered. Navigating this new experience is terrifying to many children. It may involve new living arrangements, visitations with outside family members, separation from friends and family. It may also mean trying to remember what their parents were, looked like, their voice, smell, and laughter.
Witnessing loss through the eyes of a child can be heartbreaking. You want to pick up that child and wrap them in a blanket to keep them warm and safe forever. Others think the child needs to grow up now, pushing them to do things (activities, chores, decisions) beyond their capability. Still, others wrapped up in their grief or guilt do not see the child’s changed behaviors: depression, sadness, anger, or despair as a concern or need.
Sudden death, loss, separation can be traumatic on a child/adult and can cause traumatic grief.
On its website, the Trauma Survivors Network lists common symptoms of traumatic grief, which include:
- Being preoccupied with the deceased
- Experiencing pain in the same area as the deceased
- Having upsetting memories
- Feeling that life is empty
- Longing for the person
- Hearing the voice of the person who died or “seeing” the person
- Being drawn to places and things associated with the deceased
- Experiencing disbelief or anger about the death
- Thinking it is unfair to live when this person died
- Feeling stunned or dazed
- Being envious of others
- Feeling lonely most of the time
- Having difficulty caring about or trusting others
Woking with the person/ child to determine the grief from the trauma can be tricky. Some therapists suggest EMDR, exposure therapy, or trauma therapy. Children may have fear attached to the grief, which may cause PTSD; however, some may have the silent treatment -unresolved feelings causing them to ignore or avoid talking about the loss. Others may struggle with acceptance of the event, which leaves them in the denial phase of grieving (ignoring or avoiding the situation)
Grief may resemble ADHD and a sudden burst of energy which is not only hyperactive but loud and disruptive. It may look like signs of sensory processing/ diet needs with running to walls, throwing themselves on furniture, or a need to push-pull or slam things. It may look like depression with lack of appetite, oversleeping, lack of sleep, or troubling dreams when they sleep. It can also resemble anger or defiance and exhibit the signs of rebellion, stubbornness, or yelling. These signs could mimic other mental health issues, but once examined and referenced back to grief, they will portray traumatic grief.
Avoiding diagnosing a child or adult who has suffered a traumatic loss in their life would be unbeneficial until you researched and examined any residual from that loss.
Helping the person is part of grief therapy; the empty chair or modified empty chair exercise may help the person say ‘goodbye’. Writing a letter or using art therapy is also an option to let go.
Letting go can only be accomplished after they have accepted the death.
If they are in denial, they may need talk therapy to help understand the person is gone. It was a tragedy, it was unfair, it was horrible, horrific, and surreal, but it happened. Allowing them to cry it out, scream, yell, pace, and cling to something like a pillow or stuffed animal is ok. They have so much emotion bottled up they need to get it out. Dealing with the trauma is the first step to helping them move on to grieving.
Most people want answers for why the death happened. Unfortunately, we do not always have all the answers. Blanket solutions; it was a drunk driver, he reneged and killed her, he was mad, and it got out of control, does not help; however, it may be all the answer we have.
Being honest and saying: “I do not know all the answers or reasons why but I do know this…”
We know everyone understands and uniquely processes loss. It may depend on the amount of understanding the person has, the grief they experienced in the past, and what the current loss looks like in their life.
Allowing the child time to process the loss in their way is the beginning of healing; knowing how much time it will take to heal is the unknown. Watching them struggle with the loss and the extreme emotions they feel becomes the tricky part. Waiting for them to move on through the grieving process is anxiety-provoking and exciting.
If your child is struggling with losing a parent or loved one, reach out to a licensed therapist to help guide you through the process.