Grief is the collection of thoughts and feelings that occur when a loved one dies.
What is Mourning?
Mourning is the expression of grief. Children mourn through their behavior rather than verbal expression.
The Tasks of Mourning
- Acknowledging the loss.
- Experiencing the pain and reacting to the separation.
- Moving adaptively into the new without forgetting the old.
Understanding the process of grief in children ages 6-12
- Concrete thinkers who are beginning to develop thinking patterns.
- They question how their lives will be different, what will be the same, and how one knows the person is dead.
- Usually interested in how the body works, may ask questions like: Did his blood get all over the windshield? Will her hair fall out now that she is dead?
- Their questions and play may be graphic and gory, displaying a fear of bodily harm and mutilation. (details are common).
- At this age they have a better understanding of death and comprehend that they too can die.
- They often perceive death as a punishment for something they did, and often associate guilt with death.
- They begin to fear death.
- They realize death is final and people they love can die too.
- There is curiosity regarding the biological aspects of death.
Things to keep in mind when dealing with elementary and middle school aged children:
- They cannot sustain emotional pain for long periods of time.
- DO NOT reject their emotions.
- DO NOT tell them how to feel or how not to feel.
- Death is not contagious- be sure to differentiate.
- Remember that children tend to idolize the dead…help them to gently regain their balance and perspective.
Common Behaviors to Expect: In Ages 6-9
- Regression to earlier behaviors.
- Crying, protest, pain, despair, disorganization.
- Fighting, anger, high anxiety.
- Not completing homework or assignments.
- Stable eating/ sleeping patterns are disrupted then return to “normal”.
- Less willing to talk about death.
- Grief reactions ebb and flow.
How to Help:
- Answer questions as clearly and accurately as possible.
- Refrain from using clichés.
- Respond compassionately.
- Be responsive to their needs without punishment or judgment.
- Provide art, music, and dance activities.
- Make time for physical outlets: sports, games, walks.
- Help the student identify and use support systems.
- Work with student around academic workload.
- Allow for expressions of feelings and emotions.
- Allow flexibility in routines and structure.
- Give the students choices whenever possible.
- Let the student know you care and are thinking of them.
- Assign the student a buddy who can work with him/ her.
- Create a “ safe place” where a student can go if needed.
Common Behaviors to Expect: In Ages Nine to Twelve:
- Separation anxiety and fear.
- Reluctance to leave home and parents.
- May lose some manual skills.
- Their grades may fall, daydreaming and blaming…Do not reprimand for poor grades.
- Denial, guilt, hostility, distancing.
- Withdrawal and sullenness.
- Anger and fighting.
- Risk taking behaviors (dugs, sexual acting out, stealing).
- Erratic inconsistent reactions.
How to Help:
- Expect and except mood swings.
- Provide a supportive environment where students can share, when needed.
- Anticipate increased physical concerns, including illness and body aches and pains.
- Allow the student to choose with whom and how she gets support.
- Encourage participation in a support group.
- Allow flexibility in completing school work.
Understanding the Process of Grief in High School students
- More adult thought processes evident.
- Able to think abstractly.
- Understand implications of death.
- Have feelings of immortality and realize life is fragile.
Common Behaviors to Expect:
- Assumes the adult role.
- Preoccupation with death.
- Withdrawal from parents and other adults.
- Angry outbursts.
- May attempt suicide as a gesture.
- Increased risk taking behaviors.
- Pushing the limits of the rules.
- Lack of concentration: inability to focus.
- Hanging out with a small group of friends.
- Sad face evidence of crying.
- Sleepiness, exhaustion.
How to Help:
- Allow for regression and dependency.
- Encourage expression of feelings such as sorrow, anger guilt, regret.
- Understand and allow for variation in maturity level.
- Answer questions honestly and provide factual information.
- Model appropriate responses, showing the students your own grief.
- Avoid power struggles and allow choices.
- Help students understand and resolve feelings of helplessness.
- Assist students with plans for completion of assignments.
- Allow for some flexibility in assignments…be willing to adapt assignments to topics relevant to student’s current experience.