Grief and loss
At times of significant change and loss, people become vulnerable and feel robbed of security, happiness and comfort. The death of a loved one is the most permanent loss each of us may experience, but there are other forms of loss that can significantly change our lives. For a young person, the most common losses are parental separation and divorce.
When parents decide to separate, children have no choice but to accept the decision. Given that they have less time to adjust and develop appropriate coping skills, the experience can be very disorienting. To a young person, they feel like they are suddenly thrust from a secure and comfortable environment into a territory that is both painful and frightening.
This topic aims to help parents and carers better understand the issues around grief and loss which may result from family breakdown, death of a loved one and other personal losses. Tips on how to support grieving children and young people are offered, as well as a section which talks specifically about assisting children to cope with a ‘death in the family’.
What is loss?
Throughout life, we develop relationships or ‘attachments’ that satisfy our needs as a person. It can be with a person, a group of people, a community or place, or even with an object. However, the bond we have formed through the years may change or come to an end. This is when we experience ‘loss’.
‘Loss’ changes the way things used to be and forces a person to live differently. It is not all about death, yet death of a loved one is usually the loss that gets people to sympathise with others.
Other forms of loss include:
- Loss of a pet or a favourite toy
- Loss of connection when a close friend or relative moves elsewhere, or when a favourite teacher starts a new job at a different school
- Loss of property due to natural disasters such as an earthquake or flood
For children and young people who experience family breakdown, their loss is about the usual ‘family dynamics’ and the loss of comfort and security that comes with having a family that is intact. They may also experience the loss of an ongoing relationship with a parent, as well as regular contact with other family members.
What is grief?
Grief is a normal and natural reaction to an experience of loss. Going through grief helps people move on with life. Family separation or divorce, death of a loved one and other disruptive changes in the life of a person often result in a grief response.
The grief process:
Kubler-Ross’s ‘Five Stages of Grief’ was probably the most commonly used model to explain the general grief process.
Following a loss, a young person may experience:
- Denial – “This can’t really be happening.” Because loss is usually an unexpected and unwanted change, a young person needs time to let it ‘sink in’.
- Anger and guilt- “Life’s unfair!”; “If only I did what I was supposed to do.” A young person may be angry or take the blame for their parents’ divorce, or even the death of a loved one.
- Bargaining – thinking that the ‘loss’ can be reversed by doing something different is common. Deep inside, a young person may say, “I know you don’t love each other anymore, but can you please…”; “I promise I will be a good child if you will just give me back my…”
- Sadness (may lead to depression) – “Life’s so different now, I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again.” During this stage, the young person begins to ‘see’ the reality of the situation. They may withdraw from family and friends and spend most of the time crying. This is an important time for grieving that must be processed. If after a considerable time, the young person still avoids people or still finds it difficult to do the things they normally enjoy, they may already be suffering from depression and may need professional intervention.
- Acceptance – “That’s life.” “I can’t do anything to change it.” Feelings of sadness and pain start to lessen. This is the stage where the young person begins to come to terms with the loss.
The five stages of grief process are not always experienced in the order in which they are listed above. Some people may not go through all of the stages; whereas, others may go back and forth between two stages before moving onto the next. Because each person is unique, we grieve in our own way and time.
Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
How do children and young people respond to grief and loss?
Compared to adults, children and young people may not show the same reactions to loss. A young person may tend to go in and out of the grief process. They may cry privately  and try to convince themselves that everything will be all right despite their experience of loss. Some of them believe that showing emotions is a sign of vulnerability, and that it is important to act as if nothing has changed when in the company of other people. This shows that just because there is no apparent sign of grief, it does not mean that a young person is not grieving.
Other responses of a young person to grief may include:
- Frustration or anger
- Exhibiting regressive behaviours (e.g. a 12 year old may go back to thumb-sucking)
- Restlessness and acting out feelings instead of talking and sharing with someone
- Lack of focus and energy
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns
How long do children and young people grieve?
Whatever the form of loss, there is no exact duration for the grieving process.
The time it takes is different for every person and is influenced by the following:
- The age (or maturity) of the person who is grieving
- The individual’s personality and attitude
- Communication skills
- Physical and emotional or mental health
- Cultural and spiritual beliefs
- Previous life experience including other losses
- The nature of the loss and the manner in which the loss occurs
- The availability of support from family, friends and other networks
- The presence of other issues in a person’s life
In case of loss through death, factors that may affect the experience of grief may include:
- The nature and type of relationship with the deceased (e.g. parent, close family friend, or colleague)
- The manner of death (e.g. long illness, suicide, or sudden death due to an accident)
What are the impacts of grief and loss to children and young people?
In general, children and young people who grieve may experience short and long-term issues around their:
- Physical and mental health
- Cognitive development including school performance
- Social and emotional functioning (e.g. withdrawal from family and friends or inability to form intimate relationships when the loss is due to a family breakdown)
Calm conversations with your kids will always be more productive.
When death occurs
Death is a normal part of our lives, yet, when it happens, we often try to refrain from dealing with it. We think we are protecting a young person from the pain by not talking about their loss. However, they would be in a better position to understand what has happened, and eventually process their grief successfully if they are told the truth from the beginning. Breaking the news about a death of a loved one to a young person is never easy, nor is the explanation that needs to come with it. But if we fail to do this, we may consign a young person to an unhappy childhood that could impact their wellbeing later in life.
What can parents and carers do to help?
Parents and carers often find themselves in a critical position of supporting a young person struggling with life transitions.
Below are some tips that may help parents and carers provide support to a young person experiencing grief and loss:
- Allow a young person to ask questions and talk about their loss as much as they want to
- Provide clear and age appropriate answers to their questions
- Let them know they are loved and would always be cared for
- Talk about your feelings and that you feel sorry about their pain
- Assure them that what happened is not their fault
- Encourage them to talk to a caring adult if they feel uneasy talking to you
- Keep things as familiar as you can (school, friends, pets, and household possessions)
- Try to include them in decision-making when possible, particularly with decisions that directly affect them
- Encourage them to mix with friends or participate in social activities
- Find time to do enjoyable things together
- Inform the school of what is happening so they can provide additional support
- Seek support for yourself during this time, take time to relax and do not forget your own health
Caring and involved parents or other supportive adults are the most important resource for a young person who is grieving. If children and young people experiencing grief and loss are appropriately supported, they may have a better chance of recovering successfully.
After a family breakdown or other significant losses, your own feelings may be so overwhelming that you may feel unable to cope with your child’s needs. It is critical that you seek assistance from friends, relatives and other support networks during this time. You may also need to consult your GP if you need professional assistance, either for yourself, or for your child.
Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.