Often caregivers and support professionals tell me that it seems like the child that they are supporting is not grieving. They often express worries that because the child they are supporting is not talking about their grief that they are not processing their feelings.
Concerned About If a Child You Are Supporting is Grieving?
Does it seem like a child you are supporting rarely talks about their grief and if they do it is for one sentence and then they follow that up with a change of subject?
I cannot tell you how many times I have had a child in counselling or in groups say one sentence like “Did you know my parent died?” Then they quickly say something like “Do you want to play basketball now?”
Children Jump In & Out of Their Grief Quickly
Imagine a child jumping in and out of puddles, this is what I visualize when I see how children often show their feelings of grief through talking.
Let’s be honest, it is hard for us adults to talk about our grief sometimes and truly put into words the profound effects that grief has on our lives. Can you imagine how hard it may be for a child to verbalize how they are feeling about something so overwhelming that they may not even fully understand?
The pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that is responsible for so much including the ability to organize our thoughts and use our reasoning skills, does not stop growing until we are 25 years old.
Even then, we are continually learning, and our feelings can change over time. I know that now as a 38-year-old, I feel much different about many things than I did when I was 25 and much, much different than when I was a child, and I show my feelings in vastly different ways now than I did then.
It is much more common for children to express their grief through other means such as play, art, and behaviours, which I will go into more in a bit.
Grief Comes in Waves
This is true for adults too; that grief can sometimes hit us like a wave. This happens often when we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something that reminds us of the person, animal, place, or time that we are grieving.
Let’s say you are walking down the street and you start to smell a lovely barbeque cooking. All of the sudden you are overwhelmed with thinking of your Aunt Colleen who used to cook up the best barbeques whenever you would go and visit her.
In my case, I was on a tour bus in another country surrounded by people I barely knew, and the tour guide put on 3 songs that played at my grandma’s celebration of life back-to-back.
By the 3rd song, I was in tears trying to shield my face from those around me as this unexpected feeling took over. Although I loved my grandma very much, I had not cried about her death until that day, 7 years after she had died.
Our senses can trigger more intense feelings of grief and overwhelm our feelings to a point where it feels like it is crashing over us like a powerful wave. If this has happened to you or does happen to you in the future, I want you to know that this is a typical experience in grief, and you are not alone in this experience.
If you are supporting a child who is grieving, be aware that grief waves may happen for them, only they may not be able to verbalize that this is what is happening for them, especially in the moment. You may see it more in the behaviours they are showing you.
Grief Will Most Likely Resurface on Important Days and Milestones
Just as triggers may resurface stronger feelings of grief, important days may also do the same. Times when we expect or were hoping for that person, we are remembering, to be physically present for can bring about stronger feelings of grief.
I want to be clear, grief never goes away, but it may resurface in stronger ways at certain times. These times may be when we graduate from different levels of school or from programs, when we celebrate holidays or milestones, when we lose our first tooth, when we learn to drive a car, etc.
I can go on and on as there are so many important times that we hope to have those we love to be a part of. It can be helpful to Make Time for Remembering and Bring Them Up during those special times to continue those bonds. Our bonds always live on even when that person is no longer physically able to be present with us.
Grief Will Look Different at Different Developmental Stages
As our brain develops and as we learn more about ourselves, our feelings, and our understanding of the world around us, we will experience our grief differently. Especially if we learn more about the person we are remembering, our feelings may change over time.
We may come to appreciate that person more or we may have feelings of anger that surface. Especially if there was a sudden or traumatic loss. To learn more about Supporting Children with Sudden and Traumatic Loss click here.
It is hard to say how a child will feel as they reach different developmental stages and learn more about themselves and how they feel. What can be so helpful is if you can be there to provide a non-judgmental space for all those feelings. To simply be with.
When people say to me that working with grief must be so hard, I always respond with it is one of the easiest spaces to work in counselling so long as I can sit in their grief with them.
It is important to not try to move people out of their grief unless they are feeling so low for so long that it is impacting their ability to live their life again in the way that they want to. There is nothing for me to fix in grief as grief will always be there for them and does not need to be fixed.
What I have heard is that the most helpful thing from others is for me to listen with non-judgmental care and kindness, and to stay away from silver linings of any kind.
There is a wonderful Brené Brown video on exactly this idea of providing empathy rather than sympathy and staying away from silver linings.
There is also a wonderful video by Megan Devine about How to Help a Grieving Friend.
Behaviours Are an Expression of Feelings
With children, it will be rarer that they will tell you how they are feeling. It is much more likely that you will find out how they are feeling through their behaviours.
Perhaps they are clinging on close to you, perhaps they are displaying their emotions in loud or disruptive ways, perhaps they are having a hard time falling asleep, or are withdrawing from friends.
There are many ways that you may notice grief in children’s behaviours. Try to be as patient as you can when you notice these behaviours and remember that many behaviours are an expression of their feelings that they may not be able to verbalize to you. To learn more, check out my blog post about how Behaviours Are an Expression of Feelings.
How Play Therapy and Other Expressive Therapies Can Help Support Children with Grief (and other feelings too)
When I was in the first couple of years of my counselling degree, I was interested in learning about play therapy to support children in counselling, so I started attending workshops from the BC Play Therapy Association.
It was at my first workshop that I met an amazing play therapist that suggested a practicum placement for me. I was so fortunate in this placement to have ended up with a supervisor who used play therapy and taught me how to use expressive therapies to help support children.
I cannot imagine using anything else to help support children as it seems like a perfect fit since play is the natural language of children.
In play therapy, children can use toys to indirectly play out what they are going through in safe ways that are tolerable to them. They can help the characters to process what they are feeling and look for ways to help support them.
It is so much more likely that you will see what a child is experiencing through their toys in a sand tray, through their art, through their crafts, and through their imaginative play, than expressing to you verbally how they are feeling.
If you are looking for helping professionals in BC, such as myself to help support a child you know through play therapy, you can find some listed here. If you are looking for support professionals throughout the rest of Canada, you can find some listed here.
If you want to create a space in your home to help provide opportunities for your child to communicate with you through their play, try setting up a space with figurines/miniatures, art supplies, and perhaps a sand tray (if you don’t mind cleaning up the occasional sand spill 😊).
How Grief Groups Can Help Support Children with Grief
Where I see the most beautiful moments in healing with grief is when the person or people, I am supporting feel somewhat understood. I have seen some magical moments with children, youth, and adults in grief groups with looks on their faces as if they finally feel like someone somewhat gets what they are going through.
No two peoples’ grief will ever be the same even when the person that died is the same person. We all have our own experiences and relationships with the people we are remembering. However, it can be so helpful to be with others who understand more of what is helpful and unhelpful as you are grieving as they are grieving too.
Did you know that many hospice organizations provide anticipatory grief and bereavement services? Most of these organizations provide these services at no cost! Some provide counselling support, and some provide groups.
I am proud to say that not only do I provide virtual support through my private practice to children and families throughout BC who are grieving, but I also currently facilitate (along with wonderful volunteers) children’s grief groups at Kamloops Hospice Association and I provide child, youth, and family counselling support.
Here are other hospice programs in British Columbia, Canada, that currently offer grief support to children and/or youth. Some of these wonderful organizations, I have had the great honour of working with in the past such as Chilliwack Hospice Society and Abbotsford Hospice Society.
There is also Langley Hospice Society, Surrey Hospice Society, Vancouver Hospice Society, Mission Hospice Society, Victoria Hospice Society, Peace Arch Hospice Society (in South Surrey), Pacific Rim Hospice Society (in Tofino – for Youth 12 years and older), and Crossroads Hospice Society (in Coquitlam – for Youth 13 years and older).
Reach out to any of these organizations to find out more about their programs and if the child you are supporting may be able to attend one of their services. Some of these programs even have amazing camps and events for children that connect them with other children who are grieving and provide invaluable experiences for them to feel less alone in their grief.
Descriptive Text for the above Infographic “Did You know? Approximately 1 in 14 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the time they turn 18. https://www.childrenandyouthgriefnetwork.com/” 14 people with one a lighter shade of green.
“There are Many More Who Have Experienced the Death of Someone they know. Such as a Teacher, a Coach, a Friend, a Family Friend, an Uncle, an Aunt, a Grandparent, a Cousin, a Classmate, and/or a Neighbour.” A broken heart in different shades of green.
“However, They May be the only ones who have experienced a death in their friend group, in the classroom, or on their Team.” Two swings with one person on one swing.
“Grief groups can be so helpful in creating a space where they can feel less alone.” Three people with their arms around each others’ shoulders.
“If they are not quite ready for a group, or if they would like extra support, it might be helpful to reach out to a children’s counsellor or Play Therapist that specializes in grief support.” A play button.
If the child and/or family you are supporting is grieving the death of a child (and you/they were/are on the Canuck Place Children’s Hospice program), a program I cannot speak highly enough about and that I had the honour of volunteering with for 10 years is Canuck Place Children’s Hospice. There is also an organization called The Compassionate Friends of Canada that ” offers support in the grief and trauma which follows the death of a child; no matter the age or cause.”
If you are in BC and your city is not listed here or you are interested in grief groups for adults as well, please reach out to the BC Bereavement Helpline.
If you are looking for children’s groups or counselling support throughout the rest of Canada, check out the Canadian Alliance for Grieving Children and Youth.
It can be extremely helpful to provide a variety of opportunities for children to express their feelings. That may be through art, play, crafts, scrapbooking, photography, doing an activity in memory of the person they are remembering, or attending grief groups, events, or camps.
When Supporting Children with Grief Try to Keep this in Mind
If you want children to express their feelings verbally to you then Show Your Grief and Use Concrete Language as those two things might help them to recognize what it is that you are speaking about and that you are a safe person to talk to about their feelings of grief.
Try to always keep in mind though that rather than telling you about their grief children will more often be more comfortable showing you their feelings.