The Truth About Children’s Grief: 4 Myths It’s Time To Reconsider

child with covered eyes

My grandmothers both died when I was about 12 years old. I remember the morning Meme died. I was upstairs in my bedroom and heard all the commotion and hushed talking. Dad didn’t go to work that day; everyone was grouchy. I was shuttled off to school wondering what the heck was going on. They told me about it later that day, but that was all. We didn’t talk about it. I was left home for the wake and the funeral. “It just wasn’t the place for children to be,” I was told. The things I wondered at the time, the answers I created for myself were so much worse than the truth ever would have been. I was scared. I was confused. Something very, very bad was going on. I could tell by the way the adults around me were behaving. 

If only I knew then, what I know now…

Dying and death are natural processes in the circle of life. Yet, it has become something we Americans avoid talking about as much as we can. It’s hard. It’s scary. We expect that new drugs and treatments will save our loved ones. And when death occurs, we see it as a medical failure, something gone wrong, not as a natural process. Forgetting that death is a natural event often makes us want to stay away from a person who is dying, and it deeply affects those who grieve – adults and children alike. 

Although current research tells us to be honest and inclusive with children, our fear of and reluctance to talk about death has had a significant impact on children’s ability to cope with loss. We are quick to send them to a friends’ house or simply to their rooms where we hide reality from them. Adults who are experiencing their own overwhelm and helplessness may find it difficult to respond to children’s needs and questions. And so, we perpetuate the conspiracy of silence. We don’t have the understanding, resources, or even energy to help them. We might think children don’t understand loss or death. Yet, they need just as much care and support as we adults do when someone in their life dies.

Myth #1 – Children aren’t affected by adults’ grief.

Nothing escapes children’s notice! They are more keenly aware of the world around them than we realize. They soak in everything they see, hear, and touch. Yes! Children are affected by the grief they see the grownups around them expressing. However, we can help children understand what is happening and help their experience be a positive one. Many adults express their grief in completely appropriate and effective ways, and children learn from watching them. Be aware of the power of your words and actions;  Children will adopt what they see. Be honest and open with them, answering questions as best you can. Be patient, let them see you cry, be angry, laugh as these are all normal reactions to grief. These will help children learn to embrace their emotions and find healthy, nondestructive ways to express themselves. 

Myth #2: Children don’t understand death.

Most people don’t believe that children, especially very young children, have any concept about death. Yet we know that even very young children will be affected by changes in their environment. The change in routine, the increased noise and activity, the change in adults behavior are all changes that will affect kids. They may not understand why these changes are happening but they definitely do notice that something has happened.  Children do grieve, just not like adults.

Elyse C. Salek, MEd and Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP say there are 4 main concepts of death, the understanding of which impact understanding of death. 

  • Irreversibility (i.e., death is permanent)
  • Finality (i.e., all functioning stops with death)
  • Inevitability (i.e., death is universal for all living things)
  • Causality (i.e., causes of death)

Learn more at How Children Understand Death & What You Should Say”

Myth #3: Children don’t feel the pain of grief.

This myth suggests that because kids don’t understand or haven’t experienced grief, they won’t hurt as much as those of us who have. I think the opposite is true. When we don’t have information, our imaginations often create something much worse. To help children cope with what’s going on we need to give age-appropriate information, help them find words for their emotions, and teach them healthy ways to express those emotions. The size of our heart or mind has nothing to do with the size of our grief!

Myth #4: Talking about the deceased will reopen a child’s grief wounds.

This is a commonly held myth for many cultures who believe that continuing to talk of the deceased and express grief’s emotions will make the experience worse. For most people, though, healing comes by expressing the whole range of feelings and emotions, and staying connected to our loved ones by sharing memories and keeping their spirit alive in doing so. It helps us all – no matter our age – integrate the loss. It’s when we pretend the person never existed by never speaking their name, or hiding pictures of them that keeps the wounds of grief open. 

A final thought

Don’t wait to talk about death and dying until it happens to someone close. If someone in your community that your children know just a little bit dies, talk about it. Tell them that “Mr. Jones” died, how people might feel, and what kinds of things are probably happening because of the death. This begins to introduce the concept of dying and death without the intensity of emotions that come with the death of someone very close. This helps children begin to understand in a safe way. Don’t be afraid to let them see the body or talk to family. You can do this by bringing them to calling hours and teaching by your example what it’s like. Doing so doesn’t harm children. Instead, when the time comes that their grandma or grandpa dies, it won’t be a brand new, scary, anxiety ridden experience.

When you are talking about death with a child, remember that young children especially think in concrete terms, not abstract ones. Don’t say “we lost Gram.” They’ll want to go find her and bring her home. Go ahead and use the word “died” – nothing bad will happen when you do. The more vague you are, the harder it will be for children to understand. And if you think about it, “died” is a difficult word, but “lost” is a hopeless one.

Healing after a death is hard. It takes courage in all shapes and sizes to mourn fully while living day to day. Congratulate yourself on welcoming courage, regardless of its size or reach. And congratulate yourself for giving your children the love, care, support, and resources they need to be courageous too.

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