Loss is never an easy thing for adults. Even with our ability to comprehend the frailty and fleeting beauty that is life, our grief can overwhelm us. Not just when a fellow humanimal dies, either. Pets, and even the loss of other living organisms (See: my deceased grandmother's tangelo tree,) can cause us mourning that must be comprehended, processed, and eventually put to rest like the person/thing we're grieving over.
How does a child translate those feelings, though? How can we help our little people to be efficient in dealing with their grief, which can easily be misunderstood and misplaced?
Firstly, it all needs to be changed up depending on the age of the child. This can be difficult in multi-child households, because whilst trying to deal with one's own feelings, one must deal with the unique needs of each child. Those needs are not just age/comprehension based, either. They are also based on the personality of the child. Is your son a child who has his feet on the ground, often serious and thoughtful? Is your daughter a child who already has separation issues and grows very closely attached? Just as every child is unique and we cannot teach them all the same, we cannot expect them to all to be comforted by the same manner and technique.
It's not uncommon for a child to express their feelings in manners that are undesirable and hurtful. Small children, say, toddler age-- may skip routine activities, regress, or fret uncontrollably while older children can do the same, in addition to acting out aggressively.
I'm going to go ahead and let you in on a child psychologist's secret as the first step towards soothing the ravaged feelings of your little dude or dudette. Honesty.
Yep. That's going to be the first thing a child psychologist will try with your child if you find that you cannot improve the feelings of your teacup humanimal. Whether your child is six or sixteen, they will bring your child into a calm, serene, non-threatening environment, often with toys or art, and they will level. They will ask concise, honest questions, and they will answer return questions honestly, with examples of their own experiences.
That brings us to point two – self expression. Art, Legos, Tinker Toys, even Matchbox cars or Barbies can be the gateway to breaking apart the negativity that can often be expressed by a child who is in mourning. It redirects those feelings and gives them a manner of expression that can take on any form, instead of them feeling frustrated in non-pretend situations. Allow your child that little bit extra toy time, allow them to sing a little louder, allow more fingerpainting. These are outlets that they can use to express emotions that have very probably been building in them like steam in a pressure cooker.
Misunderstanding is also a common feeling that the child in mourning will experience. This again comes back to honesty. Don't tell them that Nana took a trip or that Fluffy ran away. Be honest. Don't tell them more than they need to know, and don't explain over their heads, but be honest. “I'm sorry, my darling, but Nana's body was tired.” A similar statement can be used for beloved pets. The objects, though, can be more difficult. In the case of my tree, my daughter was equally as heartbroken as I was. This was a treasured family heirloom, bringing to us physical nourishment as well as the emotional nourishment it provided by holding many happy memories. When asked why a seemingly perfect tree needed to be cut down and hauled away, with tears in my own eyes, I explained that like Nanny, all life is fleeting in the grand scheme of things. We are a spiritual family, so I informed her that my hope was that since all living things have spirit in them, that Nanny would be receiving the spirit of her tree in the afterlife, there for her to sit under during perpetual blossom for the scent of the flowers she loved so much.
Punishing a child who is actively grieving is a slippery slope, so generally my recommendation is DON'T DO IT. Like the fact that they can misunderstand the loss, they can misunderstand that they're being punished for their actions, not their feelings. Instead, uit has been my experience that sitting them down and talking out the situation and why the behavior is undesirable but the feelings are allowed is the best course of action.
For our small ones who aren't yet comprehending on that level, helping them through their mourning can be ten times as difficult. I have found that there is a very simple first step – be there for them. Physically, make sure to touch and hug and cuddle frequently. Babywearing very young children, temporary co-sleeping, daily and momentary cuddling – these are all things that release the neurochemicals that are key to helping them at this stage. (Yes, processing grief even has a biological aspect, but this blog isn't long enough for that to be explained today.)
Socially, do not stop talking about said person and thing. On terms that they will understand, explain that life is temporary. Don't put photos away, rather, take the time to remember out loud. It will be good for everyone involved, as love begets love, and love begets healing.