Over the past few months of counseling kids, I’ve experienced firsthand how their emotions have shifted. First, they were anxious about someone they loved coming down with COVID-19 or catching it themselves.
Once the government started the shelter-in-place orders all over the country, there was actually less anxiety. “I’m having fun baking with my mom,” or “I go on walks every day with my dad” were a few of the comments I heard.
3 things to understand about childhood grief
Fast forward to this past week, I heard more restlessness, boredom and loneliness creep in. “I miss my friends” I heard over and over from kids of all ages. And now, I think they will most likely be shifting to grief.
As that happens, a few important ideas to remember:
1. Children grieve differently than adults
One thing I have learned over the 27 years I have been counseling children and adolescents is that children grieve differently than adults. Children pass through the same stages of grief that we do, as adults, but the timing and intensity often look different.
The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. An adult moves in a systematic way through these steps. Children, however, move through them in spurts and will often cycle back through them with different stages of their development.
2. A child has more transient emotions than adults
They simply can’t live in the intensity of grief as long as we can. They feel it just as intensely, but cannot for as long a period of time. He may cry when you tell him his mom has died, and then want to run outside and play five minutes later. Children need to do this. He needs time and space to process his emotions as they surface . . . not as you believe they should surface.
3. A child may repeat stages as they grow older
A four-year-old will grieve when he loses a sibling. And then, at eight years old, he’ll grieve more when he wishes his brother were there to play outside and be his best friend.
The realities of his or her loss will evolve with his evolving mind and experiences. She will need you to grieve with her as her pain comes up afresh. She’ll need you to sit with her and listen to her, rather than gently or strongly encourage her to move on.
Grief has its own timetable, especially in a child’s growing up.
3 things we can do to help a child in grief
As we move into more of us experiencing loss, how can we help? What can you do as a parent, especially when you are still grieving yourself? It’s important to say, too, that kids are not just grieving loss as in death.
They’re also grieving the loss of events and activities they love or were looking forward to. They’re grieving the loss of normal life. And it’s important to talk about all areas of loss.
1. Be honest about the loss
Specifically, let them be honest about it. They may need you to model talking through your feelings. But a child is also, and often especially in this time, in tune to how you are. If they hear much of your own pain, they can ignore theirs and try to care for you. Be honest enough to open them up to their feelings, and then let them grieve. It can be as simple as saying, “I miss being with your grandparents,” or, “I’m sad we’re not going to get to go on this vacation. How do you feel?”
2. Have a safe place to process your emotions apart from your child
Because a child can quickly and in very subtle ways try to care for you, they need you to process your feelings apart from them. I see many families who don’t feel they have the time or financial resources to pursue their own counseling, but are trying to be good parents in making sure their children are being cared for. A vital part of caring for your children involves making sure you are getting the help you need to process your own grief.
3. Allow loss to be an opportunity to lean together into Christ
As you grieve with your children in this season, they need to know the Comforter. They need to watch you dwell in Christ and receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Pray together as a family.
As Colossians 3:15-17 in The Message says:
“Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.”
There is much to be thankful for in your family at this moment. Grieve with your children. Allow yourself and them to be sad. Talk about the person you loved and lost. Talk about the events you miss, as well. And then, laugh together.
It’s how they grieve normally . . . in and out, which is a lot like life feels anyway. And, finally, foundationally, remember that we serve a God who redeems. Even this. Maybe especially this. He is with us. And He is redeeming this time for our good and His glory.