Grief in Childhood and Adolescence

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D.

When you read this title, your thought may run like this, "What does grieving have to do with children?  Children don't experience the loss of a loved one at this early age.  Their parents are still young and their siblings and friends just kids.  Theirs is the time for growing up, gaining strength and vitality.  They don't have to worry about death.  Loved ones are not supposed to die when you're so young!"  And, fortunately, it is rare.  Unfortunately, however it does happen.

When it happens, there is a lot of confusion questions and misconceptions, such as, "Do children grieve?  Can they grieve? A child can't grieve appropriately; they will be totally devastated if we were honest with them about the loss."

The list of questions, opinions and confusion goes on":

 - "One shouldn't tell children at their tender age what death is really about.  They can't bear the truth."
 - "I don't have to shock them with the news.  One day, they will find out on their own."
 - "I will buy as much time as I can.  If they somehow find out, I will deal with it then."

Sometimes, children have to experience multiple losses before their childhood is over.  A few of these losses are:  1) Separation from a parent.  2) Death of a parent 3) Death of a sibling. 4) Death of a relative to whom the child was close, such as an uncle, an aunt or a grandparent.  5) Death of a playmate or a classmate.  6) Death of a family pet.

In childhood, the first possible separation can be from mother.  By the term separation, we mean a separation for more than a few hours, which is generally brought about by a parent's or child's illness, hospitalization, parent's going on a vacation without the child, etc.

Parental separation or divorce invariable leads to separation from a parent.  If the child is very young, dependent, and still clinging to mother, a separation from her can severely disturb him.  The studies on attachment and loss indicate that the time of a separation determines how badly it would impact a child.

There is a "critical age" for separation.  If a child is separated from a parent during the critical age, the effect on him is likely to be severe.

Parents at the prime of their lives do not typically die of old age or other natural causes.  A parent whose offspring is still a child is more likely to die of an accident, suicide, a terminal illness, or some other form of physical crisis.  Since this type of death is usually untimely, no one talked about it earlier or prepared the child for this type of loss.

On the other hand, if a parent had a progressive and terminal illness, it poses a whole set of different questions for the family: "Should we let him (the child) visit his parent in the hospital? Should we tell him how serious the illness is?  Should we tell him his father (or mother) is dying."  Thus families face tormenting questions.

To sense the complexity and severity of a child's loss, look at what the loss has done to the family.  A child's loss is a part of the family's tragedy.  Accidents and acts of violence everyday deprive families of their loved ones.

A child survivor loses a parent and a sibling in one stroke of fate.  Perhaps it is a mother and a child that survive an automobile accident while other family members in the car died.  They have to deal with the shock and trauma of that accident.  They did not just HEAR the news of death, they WITNESSED the terrifying experience.

Take another situation of a parent who is seriously ill and requires "thirty-six hours a day personal care" for weeks and months.  Families become physically exhausted and financially bankrupt.  Parents have the job of emotionally keeping their heads above the water and of helping their children overcome the pain, the grief and the other intense emotions.

Sometimes, children have to suffer the loss of another adult or a child, such as a member of their family, a relative or a friend.  A child attaches to a number of people at a time, children as well as adults.  Getting down from mother's lap and leaving mother's finger frees him up to emotionally relate to other adults and children.

A two-year-old can form a strong attachment and bonding with other adults, including his grandparents, uncles, aunts or any other adult with whom he comes in close contact.  Loss of a sibling, a friend or even a pet can leave a wide gap in a child's life as the loss involves someone with whom the child had spent a considerable time and in whom he has invested a lot of emotional energy.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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