As grief surrounds our area communities it is important to remember that grief is felt by not only adults, but also our children.Posted June 27, 2013
Submitted by Tara L. Jorgenson, MS, LPCC,
Program Coordinator/Mental Health Therapist at West River Health Services
As grief surrounds our area communities it is important to remember that grief is felt by not only adults, but also our children. The following information offers some education on an overview of grief and bereavement, signs and symptoms to watch for in children and the difference between grief and depression with guidelines for referral.
What is grief and bereavement?
When someone dies—whether it’s a parent, sibling, friend or other loved ones, or even a beloved pet—it’s perfectly normal to go through a period of deep sadness, loss and mourning. This is known as grief and bereavement.
Everyone, including young children, goes through grief after a loss. Though the feelings associated with bereavement are painful, the process is a natural part of human life and emotional healing. It is only when grief seriously interferes with a child’s day-to-day activities, routines and outlook on the future that it can become a problem.
What are some of the “dos” and “don’ts” in helping a child who is grieving?
• Insist that no one bring up the person who has died around the child
• Scold the child for asking questions about the death, or try to change the subject
• Hide your own sadness (including tears) from the child
• Assume that if the child doesn’t cry, he “doesn’t care” or isn’t grieving in his own way
• Encourage the child to talk about his/her feelings, about the person who died and even about the death itself
• Reassure the child that it’s okay to cry, and it doesn’t show weakness
• Include the child in honoring and celebrating the life of the lost loved one (whether in formal memorial services or in informal family remembrance)
Signs and symptoms
What are the common symptoms of grief?Every child will experience grief differently, depending upon their age, how close they were to the lost loved one and the circumstances of the death. It’s important to know your child and watch closely for signs that he/she is struggling.
Your child may show all, some or a few of the following symptoms:
• sadness: A deep sense of sadness and loss is the most common symptom of grief in children (and in adults, as well). Your child’s sadness may be intermingled with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and a sense of being alone in the world. They may cry frequently or experience rapid shifts in mood.
• disbelief: Your child may struggle to acknowledge and believe that a loved one is really dead. The child may deny the death, insist the person is still alive and expect to see them again, even after being told they are gone and cannot come back.
• guilt: Your child may feel guilty about anything said or did (or didn’t say or do) while the loved one was alive—for example, agonizing over a past argument with a deceased parent, or not saying “I love you” the last time he/she saw a sibling who died. If the loved one died after a lengthy illness, your child may have felt some relief at the death (which is normal) and may now be inwardly punishing themselves for thinking this way. They may even feel guilt over not somehow preventing the death, regardless of how the person died.
• blame: Your child may lash out at surviving family members for not stopping the loved one’s death, or even for somehow causing it (for example, blaming an unruly sibling for a parent’s heart attack).
• anger: Your child may feel very angry about the loved one’s death, regardless of the circumstances. Their anger may target the doctors and nurses caring for the loved one, God or even the person who has died for “abandoning” the child.
• fear: Your child’s grief is likely to trigger a sense of fear, as well—fear that something may happen to another loved one, or to them. They may experience bouts of anxiety and panic, and possible separation anxiety at the prospect of being physically away from the surviving parent or other family members.
Grief can also manifest itself as physical symptoms with no identifiable medical cause, including:
• excessive sleep
• sudden weight loss
• sudden weight gain
What’s considered normal and when do we need help?
Whether a child needs professional treatment to help them manage their grief is determined not by how long they grieve—grief can go on for years—but by how significantly the grief interferes with their daily life.
Your child may need professional help if:
• is consistently angry or irritable
• feels or behaves as though they are “numb”
• states that they have “no one to talk to” or “no one who understands them”
• is preoccupied with worrying about their own death or the death of other loved ones
• is afraid to be physically removed from a loved one “in case something happens”
• is fixated on death and dying beyond her own personal loss (for example, seeking out morbid books, movies and news stories)
• cannot stand to be “left alone with their thoughts”—is always seeking something to “keep busy”
• is avoiding anything that reminds them of the loved one who has died
• refuses to discuss the loved one who has died
• withdraws from family and friends, wanting to be alone at all times
If you feel you, or your child, is in need of professional help to process through the stages of grief, please contact any West River Health Services clinic to schedule an appointment. West River Life Solutions, through West River Health Services, is built of a team of individuals with mental health backgrounds to treat the needs of those in our service area. Therapists on staff include Tara L. Jorgenson, MS, LPCC, Program Coordinator, Rose B. Bergquist, PA-C, CNS-PMH, and Roger E. Dieterle, MDIV, MS, Pastor. Additionally, Dr. Carrie Ann K. Ranum, MD, specializes in Pediatrics and the treatment of depression, anxiety and ADHD.
Remember no concern is too small to ask about.