As parents and caregivers, we naturally want to prevent, or relieve, any pain or distress our children experience, so it can be hard for us to accept that we cannot do this with grief. Adults regularly contact us to say that they think their child needs “grief counselling” or “therapy” to help fix the grief. They are often surprised to hear that this is not what we offer at SeeSaw and that, given the right circumstances, most children and young people do not need specialist grief support.
Just as an uprooted plant will grow again in the appropriate soil, with the correct amount of water, sunshine, and shade, so too will most children continue to thrive following a bereavement given the right relationships, and the appropriate support, reassurance, and information.
In our work with bereaved children, young people, and families, we often discuss “healthy grief”. By this we mean that it is a natural human reaction to grieve when someone we love dies, and that it is not something that can be fixed or taken away. Children and adults alike must feel and process their grief whilst also learning to live life without their loved one.
This is in no way meant to minimise the grief our children can experience. But what we know children need more than counselling or therapy following a bereavement is the emotional availability of the adults in their lives, honest and open communication about what has happened, help in understanding what they are feeling, and learning skills or strategies to manage their emotions and reactions. Letting your child know that they are not alone in their grief, that you are feeling the same emotions, and that you are ‘in it together’ can help to alleviate the feelings of loneliness and anxiety that are common in children and young people when someone dies.
To help people to understand grief, we often introduce some simple theories. To begin with, we may talk about the Dual Process Theory. This theory introduces the idea that there are two sides to grieving. One side concerns loss and processing the feelings we may have following the death of someone we love or care for. The other side concerns restoring our life, finding our new normal, and learning to move forward without the person who has died.
When children are moving naturally back and forth between feeling the emotions of their grief and continuing to manage their daily lives and activities (such as eating, sleeping, going to school, and having fun), then they are likely to be grieving healthily.
Parents may worry that their child appeared to be “fine” for a while but then suddenly began to feel sad or angry or to cry for the person who died, before returning to normality again. This is called “puddle-Jumping” and it is the natural way in which the brain of a child will protect them because they are not able to cope with feeling sad for a long time. The child feels the sadness for a short while, but then they need to jump out of the puddle and do something they enjoy that distracts them.
One theory we don’t use is the Stages of Grief which is the one that many people still refer to. This theory was initially written by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to describe the way people come to accept a terminal diagnosis and was later adopted as a grief theory. We believe this theory is unhelpful when describing grieving in children; there are no specific ‘stages’ children go through to reach the point when they stop grieving. What we know to be true is that children can actually grieve again for the same person because as they get older and move through different stages of their development, they begin to process their loss in new ways.
Sometimes children need and want a little more support and that is when we would offer some grief work sessions where we might teach them about some of these theories to help them understand what they are feeling and experiencing. We may also help them to find strategies for managing big emotions, and we often look at memory work and ways to remember the person who died. This would include another theory called “Continuing Bonds”, which encourages us in accepting that our lives changed when the person died, but our relationship with that person continues, and we find ways to continue to feel connected to them. Not only is this normal, but it also helps children to cope with their grief.
If you would like more information on how to support bereaved children and young people, please do explore our website where you will find information in the form of videos, support sheets, and booklets. If your child has been bereaved of a parent or sibling and you need advice or support, please complete our referral form and one of our team members will contact you to discuss how we can help.