Children and adolescents face some unique challenges in the grief journey. They usually become the neglected and overlooked griever. It takes courage to walk this grief journey.
Emotions during grief are confusing, overwhelming and so intense. To understand this journey does not take the pain away, but it normalizes complicated feelings. Children and adolescents, like most of us, do not have the vocabulary or experience to express these emotions of grief. They are not equipped with the tools and coping skills to manage such pain.
Walking someone through this grief journey is WALKING ALONGSIDE and LISTENING to them. We earn the right to offer and teach them healthy ways to express their complicated emotions and needs.
Sometimes children are overlooked in the midst of chaos and a multitude of changes, leaving them feeling invisible or forgotten. They may appear one way on the outside but struggle within searching for ways to cope with their pain.
They can become afraid of losing another loved one. Some children and adolescents revert to having separation anxiety and desiring to know where everyone is at all times. Anxiety increases when they see others in their family in the depths of mourning which may cause them to suppress their pain.
Guilt urges them to examine if the death was their fault. Some children and adolescents revisit words and actions, even desiring a second chance for most of those moments.
Many children and adolescents, even at age 8, have expressed how they feel like they had to grow up overnight. Many need to take on more adult responsibilities. Death tarnishes play, innocence, and a normal childhood as these children face one of life’s most difficult realities.
Anger can be explosive when life seems so out of control. Death, sickness, accidents and disasters are out of our control. A child may respond in anger to their friends at school who complain about a parent. They may think, “At least you have a mom.” Not many of their friends have had their lives touched by death, so it seems that there is no one that truly understands. That kind of loneliness separates them even in a crowd of friends.
Exhaustion has become their closest companion which makes academics a difficult hurdle. A test could possibly be postponed from Thursday to Monday, but nothing will have changed in their lives between Thursday and Monday. They have no one to delegate their responsibilities to and say, “Would you please study, retain the information and take the test for me?”
Children and adolescents may feel such a deep dark sadness, which is referred to as depression. Sometimes they hide their tears so as to not add to others’ sadness. They crave to see their loved one just one more time, hold them, hear their voice and laughter. They are afraid they may forget these special details about their loved one.
Children grieve in the future when moments such as graduations or birthdays happen. They also grieve when everyday questions pop up, such as, just wanting to ask Dad how he asked out a girl for the first time. These moments can be as painful as the day their loved one died. A fourteen year old girl said, “Do you not see, I need my mom more today than when she died, when I was age 10?” A young lady’s wedding day may be the happiest day of her life and also the saddest because her father is not there to walk her down the aisle. These times, when sad and happy collide, are “SAPPY” moments.
Jesus was a “man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” so He truly understands and promises to comfort those who are grieving. God is the Father of all comfort. Comprehending the reality of never getting over the one you love will provide the courage for the child or adolescent to adjust, move forward, keep the person alive in appropriate ways, and manage the waves of the emotional pain of grief.
A broken heart adjusts and grows in strength. It is the realization of God’s plan and purpose in a child’s life that paves the path to the future. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.
by Martha Furman, LPC, LMFT