Is Grief A Lifelong Thing? 7 Ways to Help Your Child Cope
Parents understand their child has grief from past trauma and loss, and often they worry, “Is this a lifelong thing?” Grief resulting from trauma and loss is revisited throughout a person’s lifecycle. Grief may show itself through different symptoms, and may be triggered by various events as a child grows and matures.
A child can become caught in their grief without realizing they have been triggered, but as his or her parent you will recognize it through their behavior --acting out, i.e.: yelling, hitting, kicking or shutting down, i.e.: refusing to talk, make eye contact, or turning away from you. Grief can appear at significant or anniversary times in a child’s life; for example, birthdays, holidays, family vacations, when the child leaves for college, or as an adult, when he or she gets married or becomes a parent.
Waves of Grief
People experience grief much like the waves of the ocean. When a loss first occurs, their emotions are like a big, choppy storm with lightning, thunder, and massive waves. As the person walks along the shore, forceful waves of grief knock him over so that his balance is lost. The waves retreat until the grief comes again, and again he is knocked off balance as the cycle continues.
As a person heals, the waves continue to come into shore but they are smaller, and as the years go by the ocean calms and reduces to a lake or eventually a pond.
At times the water is serene but occasionally something falls into the water causing the waves again. Not large waves like in the beginning, but a rippling of waves that bring up feelings of sadness or anger, and thoughts of, “What if . . .”
What if . . .
My birth mom hadn’t left.
My parents hadn’t used alcohol or drugs.
She had the money to keep me and take care of me.
The orphanage lady had been nice to me.
My adoptive parents could have gotten me sooner.
These questions and feelings connect back to the original storm (trauma or loss), and cause the waters to stir up again.
What Can I Do?
As a parent, how can you help your child when he or she is experiencing grief, another disruption in the pond, or even a small storm?
- Listen to your child’s feelings. By allowing your child to express himself, he is able to move through the grief and find a sense of calm.
- Let your child know you support him in this time of struggle. Use sentence starters to convey you understand where he is coming from, for example: “I understand . . . “ “I’m here for you and your feelings are important to me . . . “ or “I get that this is hard for you . . . “
- Do not try to fix the grief or make it better. As parents we do not like to see our kids in pain, but when parents attempt to solve the problem, they are not available to hear how it is affecting their child. Once your child has shared his feelings, then you can offer ideas or solutions.
- Know your child needs time . . . time to be still, think, and process the grief. Remember, each period of grief can last a few minutes, hours or days but he will find a sense of calm again.
- Do not encourage your child to avoid the grief as it will only makes his feelings mushroom and grow. Comments that encourage a child to avoid grief sound like: “Oh, just don’t think about it,” “Let’s get some ice cream instead of thinking about that” or “Let’s talk about something else.”
- Look for the open doors to communication. Some kids are willing to talk about their feelings at any given time while others are more resistant. Find the times your resistant child is more open, i.e.: playing basketball, going on a hike, driving in the car, working on a craft project, or listening to music.
- Help your child make connections to the past. Often, children do not see how their current grief is connected to a past loss; they only notice their feelings. Use the Connect Back tool to help your child identify the origins of his grief.
It is normal and expected for your child to experience mild to severe periods of grief related to his past trauma or loss. Utilize the above strategies to help your child cope when he or she is going through a period of grief.